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					            Style: Passive voice, point of view, and sentence subjects
         Much of this handout is adapted from Joseph Williams, Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace 6th edition.

As a rule, sentences in English utilize either passive or active constructions. Consider the
following two sentences:

                              Example A: Active- Max ripped the book.
                              Example B: Passive- The book was ripped by Max.

In general, an active sentence is one in which the grammatical subject is doing the action, i.e.
is active. So, in example A, Max, the grammatical subject, is the agent of action. In a passive
construction, the grammatical subject is acted upon, that is, it is a passive recipient of action.
You can see how this works in Example B, where the book is not doing anything, but is
having something done to it. A signpost of passive construction is often a prepositional
phrase that begins with “by” – this tells us who or what is doing an action. In other words,
the agent of action, in a passive construction, is reduced to an indirect object – if it is
mentioned at all (Example B could easily have been written as “The book was ripped”).

Many students have been taught that they should never use passive voice – because it makes
prose more wordy and less direct. As you become more sophisticated writers, this rule
needs to be amended to the following: only use the passive voice deliberately. Passive voice
can be a useful tool in writing because of the way it impacts the subject and point of view of
a sentence. Consider the following questions when deciding whether or not to use the

1. Must your readers know who is responsible for the action? By occluding the agent of action, the
   passive allows you to avoid assigning responsibility.

2. Would the active or passive verb let you arrange words in an order that helps your reader move smoothly
   from one sentence to the next? Flow is very important for making meaning, and sometimes
   using the passive will enable that flow.

3. Would the active or passive create a consistent and appropriate sequence of subjects representing
   characters/agents of action that you want your readers to focus on? A sentence coheres more
   strongly when the grammatical subjects are relatively consistent, maintaining a focus on a
   specific topic, person, etc.

In other words, when deciding whether or not to use the passive voice, consider the
decision’s impact on the desired flow, point of view, and tone of your sentence.


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