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26 September 2012

Teaching How to Avoid the Passive Voice

Students often get confused trying to figure out how to avoid the use of the passive voice in their writing. I didn't figure it out until several years into graduate school after grading tons of undergraduate papers as an instructor. There are two reasons why one would want to avoid the passive voice. First, it tends to read awkwardly. Good writing is clear writing. (Just ask Fabio.) Second, it's easy to hide misunderstanding behind the passive voice. For example, take this sentence: "The woman was assaulted." By whom? Well, typically, women are assaulted by men so a more appropriate sentence would read, "A man assaulted the woman." A world of sociology lies in the difference between those two sentences.

(Though not about voice, per se, here is a great example from Nathan Palmer about how language can hide privilege. Nate also has a good post about writing here.)

Here are a couple tips for students (and faculty) trying to spot and avoid the passive voice:

First, if you can ask "by whom?" of the verb or if "by" shows up in the sentence, there is a good chance that its in the passive voice. "Lower wages are earned [by whom?] by manual laborers."

Second, think about the relationship between the subject and the verb. In the example "Lower wages are earned by manual laborers," the subject (i.e. wages) is the target of the action (verb = is earned), which makes it passive voice. To make it active, we just need to rephrase it so that the subject does the action: "Manual laborers earn lower wages."

UPDATE (10/22/2015): Here is an excellent op-ed in the NYTimes by a lecturer in the Institute for Writing and Rhetoric at Dartmouth about the shady use of the passive voice in politicized Texas history textbooks that hide slave masters from the history of slavery.

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