Active and Passive Voice

In books, classes, or seminars that teach writing techniques, writers often hear this tip:

Use active voice rather than passive voice.

While this is frequently recommended, as with many other writing suggestions, there are cases when writers disregard it.

Before we discuss those cases, it’s important to understand the difference between the active voice and the passive voice.

As the name implies, the active voice refers to writing where the subject of the sentence performs the action. Alternatively, passive voice refers to writing where the subject of the sentence is acted upon by the verb.

For example, observe the comical slogan on this Piggly Wiggly T-shirt, which demonstrates the active voice:

In this case, the subject (I) performs the action (dig) on the object (pig).

In passive voice, however, the sentence could be written thus:

The pig is dug by me

In this case, the subject in the sentence (pig) remains passive and receives the action (dug) by the object (me).

According to The Chicago Manual of Style (5.115 in the sixteenth edition; 5.118 in the seventeenth) and other sources, active voice should be used over passive voice, but not in all circumstances. What are some of those cases?

Here is one example from Chicago:

The choice between active and passive voice may depend on which point of view is desired. For instance, the mouse was caught by the cat describes the mouse’s experience, whereas the cat caught the mouse describes the cat’s.

The University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Writing Center provides another example, to keep the subject and focus consistent:

The data processing department recently presented what proved to be a controversial proposal to expand its staff. After long debate, the proposal was endorsed by …


Do you have other examples of passive voice or situations where passive voice can be beneficial? Drop us a line and tell us!