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Topic 3: Determining Which Voice to Use

Now that you (hopefully) can tell which voice a sentence has, it is vital to know when to use each.

When to Use Each

Active voice is what we most often find in creative writing, while passive voice is seen a bit more in academic (and especially scientific) writing. What this delineation means is that, roughly, Shakespeare writes in active voice, whereas literary theorists tend to incorporate passive voice when they write about Shakespeare’s works. 

To get a sense of why the above is the case, take a look at the following two examples:

Macbeth morphs from loyal subject of the king to desperate power-grasper, and it is all because of a simple prophecy.

Macbeth is morphed from a loyal subject of the king to a desperate power-grasper, and it is all because of a simple prophecy.

The meaning of the two sentences may seem utterly identical, but examine what is emphasized in each. In the first (active) sentence, Macbeth is emphasized as the agent who is doing the morphing, while in the second, the morphing seems to be happening to him. The distinction is actually quite important. In the particular example of Macbeth, Shakespeare could be either showing us the dastardly effects of being a person who grasps for power (as the active sentence emphasizes) and/or that human nature or fate, or some other force external to us can move us to commit great evil. 

Where does all of the above information take us in terms of grammar? It shows that active and passive voice are important ways of demonstrating action in a sentence, but that that choice is largely up to the writer. All of that said, however, there is a general ground-rule that we should all follow (even academic writers):

Lean toward using active voice more than passive.

That is, even if you are writing a stuffy paper on a playwright who has been dead for 400 years, only use passive voice when you really have to. Active voice is almost always more engaging and more clear than passive voice.

Your Turn: Test Your Understanding!