Author(s): 

Karen Wink

Publication History: 
The Writing Instructor, April 2002

Population

College composition students who are studying argumentation principles and persuasive writing.

Rationale

None of our students is likely to write in the passive voice quite as dramatically as acclaimed French Author Raymond Queneau in his Exercises in Style (1981). In this text, he wrote poetic versions of a conflict between two men on a bus in France, including this passive selection:

It was midday. The bus was being got into by passengers. They were being squashed together. A hat was being worn on the head of a young gentlemen. [. . .] A long neck was one of the characteristics of the young gentlemen. The man standing next to him was being grumbled at by the latter because of the jostling which was being inflicted on him by him. As soon as a vacant seat was espied by the young gentlemen it was made the object of his precipitate movements and it became sat down upon (72).

Queneau took poetic license and wrote passively purposely, and the result shows his subjects: the bus, the seat, and the male rider as recipients of the action, rather than its agents. Like most writers, Queneau chose his words for effect, which, in his creative piece, resulted in labored writing for readers to sort through. Since most writing is meant for readers, writers, particularly students learning to write argumentatively, need to recognize the impact of their words on their readers.

When commenting on student writing, instructors notice when student writers rely heavily on the passive (rather than active) voice, suggesting low audience awareness of how to make choices whether to use active or passive voice as what Aristotle deemed a “means of persuasion” (ix). The goal in most core writing courses is for students to shift from “writer- [. . .] to reader-based prose” (Flower 235). Such prose shows writers' mindful consideration of their readers.

Most of us have heard that active voice is “good,” and passive voice is “bad,” but a closer look reveals rhetorical purposes for both. How do we convince our students to make wise decisions about occasions to use either active or passive voice for rhetorical reasons? How do we prompt their recognition of arguments that call for a different voice? This classroom practice, which I have used successfully in my own composition courses, can help raise the rhetorical awareness in students’ writing and make them aware of the occasions needing active or passive voice.

Goal

The overarching goal of active and passive voice instruction is to raise rhetorical awareness in students’ writing. When teaching this convention, a necessary premise is “writing as rhetoric”: writers situating their prose with purposes, audiences, and constraints. (Ex. A student writes a persuasive letter to the Dean arguing that students should receive exemptions from a final exam in courses in which they have maintained consistent “A” work.)

To achieve their purposes, writers can use persuasive means (appeals: ethos, pathos, or logos; figures of speech; word arrangement; and active/passive voice) to achieve their purposes. Simply, student writers can ask themselves: Whom am I trying to convince of what? and how? To answer the question “how?” students can consider (1) their use of active vs. passive voice as situational and stylistic; and (2) their overuse of passive voice as distracting to their readers. These choices are complex and require classroom dialogue, examples, and practice sentences situated rhetorically to enable students to manage the complexity in their choices.

Definition

By definition, the “voice of a verb tells whether the subject of the sentence performs the action or is acted upon” (Fowler and Aaron 242). Active voice involves agents performing the action using action verbs (e.g., Protesters unified their efforts to pass the regulation). Passive voice involves disguised, unknown, or relocated agents acted upon by “to be” and past participle verbs (e.g., Votes are counted by the volunteers). Helping verbs may also exist in passive expressions (e.g., Votes have been counted by the volunteers). As shown in some passive expressions, the agent (volunteers) appears as an object in a prepositional phrase (by the volunteers). Some passive expressions contain no agent (e.g., Votes are counted), indicating that it is unknown, unimportant, or unreported.

Pedagogy (Sequence of Instruction)

I. Active and Passive Voice

A. Overview

Introduce the topic of active/passive voice as a means of persuasion. 

Questions for discussion: 

1) How do writers use active and passive voice purposefully?

2) Which occasions or arguments call for active or passive voice?

Annotations: Using active voice generally makes writing more concise, direct, and energized; and passive voice makes writing more wordy and indirect because the agent is disguised or unidentified. Student writers can become aware that active voice is more direct and heightens the impact of their messages, whereas passive voice is more indirect and may dilute their messages to readers. Though passive voice does have its necessary uses, too much reliance on it disengages readers. Skillful writers choose their rhetorical purposes, which determine the use of active or passive voice.

Further questions for discussion:

  • What are the features of active voice? passive voice?

  • What are the advantages of using active voice? passive voice?

  • What are the disadvantages of using active voice? passive voice?

Using responses to these questions, develop a table or distribute Table 1 that shows prepared responses to these questions.

B. Features and Uses

Table 1 emphasizes the features of active and passive voice as well as their advantageous or disadvantageous uses, given certain contexts. Once writers situate their writing, they can make choices as to whether or not it is advantageous or disadvantageous to use active or passive voice.

Table 1.

Voice

Features

Advantages

Disadvantages

Active

Subject or agent performs the action

Transitive verb and a direct object (The Belle of Amherst wrote poems)

  • Fewer words
  • Engaging to Readers
  • Direct
  • Concise
  • May offend readers
  • Names the agent when preference may be concealment

Passive

Subject or agent is acted upon

Auxiliary verb: "to be" and past participle of main verb (ex. "The species are separated."

A "by" phrase (present in some passive sentences) (ex. "A lot of money is always spent by the students.)

  • Conceals responsibility
  • Diminishes harshness of message
  • Emphasizes recipient of action
  • More words
  • Disengaging to readers
  • Indirect
  • Tedious
  • Vague

C. Rhetorical Purposes

Introduce the five rhetorical purposes that allow student writers to determine when to use active or passive voice in their writing.

1.  Arguing from quantity; supports active voice.

Their Eyes were Watching God was written by Zora Neale Hurston. (passive voice sentence of 11 words)

Zora Neale Hurston wrote Their Eyes were Watching God. (active voice sentence of 9 words)

Rhetorical Purpose: Concise sentences with fewer words are more accessible and engaging to readers.

2. Arguing from definition; supports active voice.

By definition, passive voice contains weaker “to be” verbs, and active voice contains stronger action verbs. 

A Thanksgiving meal is being provided for the homeless by the students’ efforts.

Students coordinated an effort to provide a Thanksgiving meal for the homeless.

Rhetorical Purpose: Preceding action verbs, the agents are in a recognized position of performing the action.

3.  Arguing from a position of emphasis; supports either active or passive voice.

In the making of a joke, the punchline is in the position of emphasis. The adage, “People tend to remember best what they hear last” certainly applies to jokes as well as the final words or phrases in sentences in writing.

As I backed out of the driveway, a small brick wall encountered my car.

As I backed out of the driveway, I hit a brick wall.

Rhetorical purpose:  By placing the brick wall in the position of emphasis, writers can either choose passive or active voice depending on the effect they are trying to achieve.

4. Arguing to conceal or reveal the agent; supports either active or passive voice.

Concealment:

A politician argues, “Mistakes were made.”

An usher warns, “If you do not cease talking in the movie theatre, you will be asked to leave.”

Revelation:

A politician argues, “Our office personnel made mistakes in the accounting.”

An usher warns, “If you do not cease talking in the movie theatre, I will ask you to leave.”

Rhetorical purpose: To suppress or promote the agent’s responsibility.

5. Arguing that the agent is unimportant, unknown, or unreported; supports passive voice.

In given contexts, passive voice is appropriate in writing or speaking:

a. Agent is unimportant       

Ex. The poems were collected for the creative writing contest. 

b. Agent is unknown

Ex. The university buildings were constructed in 1946.

c. Agent is better left unsaid

Ex. The textbooks were sold to the wrong class.

Rhetorical Purpose: To place the subject acted upon before the verb to emphasize its importance, rather than the agent.

II. Practice Exercise: Writing Samples 

To analyze reasons for using active/passive voice in writing, provide students with examples of writing genres (literary, narrative, scientific, governmental, historical, electronic, newspaper, periodical, and/or reflective journals), and ask students to note the writers’ patterns and reasons for using active/passive voice. They can refer to the rhetorical purposes in Section I, part C. They can also note the usage differences in technical vs. non-technical writing. For instance, passive voice is a more common practice in governmental documents and scientific writing, and active voice is more common in narrative or other literary writing.

III. Practice Exercises

A. Literature

First, students can read the literary practice sentences and identify the voice as either active or passive. Next, they can identify appropriate rhetorical purposes (refer to section I, part C) and situate the practice sentences into contexts. Finally, they can practice converting the verbs from passive to active (requires either the invention or relocation of an agent) or from active to passive (requires omitting the agent or relocating it to the object of preposition position) to determine the best construction that fulfills their purpose.

Example 1

Outlined below is an example to show a writer’s process of identifying the “voice” that fulfills his rhetorical purpose for a literary essay. 

1. The writer reads this sample sentence and notes the passive phrase.

Some of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies were written by him after the death of his young son Hamnet.

2. A writer selects rhetorical purpose number three: Arguing from a position of emphasis. Let’s assume that he is writing a narrative of Shakespeare’s motives and background for writing his comedies. Thus, he decides to place the Bard, rather than his works, in the position of emphasis to showcase him as the agent.

3. The writer converts the passive phrase to an active one to fulfill his rhetorical purpose. Thus, he uses the following sentence in his writing: 

Shakespeare wrote some of his greatest tragedies after the death of his young son Hamnet. 

Practice Literary Sentences

Annotations:  The literary sentences refer primarily to rhetorical purposes one and two. Questions to discuss:  (1) How can the sentences become more effective? (fewer words? addition of action verbs? relocation of the agent?); (2) Which rhetorical purposes do they serve for you, the writers?

1. Listening to Rita Dove recite her poetry had the effect of inspiring me to write a few stanzas.

2. In Tim O’Brien’s novel The Things They Carried, the death of Ted Lavender, a soldier in his platoon, is something that Lt. Cross takes the blame for.

3. Westminster Abbey is the place where busts of famous literary figures are found.

4. Poets, novelists, and essayists were expected to attend the Booksellers’ Convention.

5. I have a dream speech was delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during turbulent time in the Civil Rights Era.

B. History

First, students can read the historical practice sentences and identify the voice as either active or passive. Next, they can identify appropriate rhetorical purposes (refer to section III, part C) and situate the practice sentences into contexts. Finally, they can practice a. converting the verbs from passive to active (requires either the invention or relocation of an agent) or b. from active to passive (requires omitting the agent or relocating it to the object of preposition position) or c. maintain the sentence as it reads in order to determine the best construction that fulfills their purpose.

Example 2

Outlined below is an example to show a writer’s process of identifying the “voice” that fulfills the rhetorical purpose for an historical essay.

1. The writer reads this sample sentence and notes the passive phrase.

Governor John Smith, from the General History: “Being thus left to our fortunes, it fortuned that within ten days scarce ten amongst us could either go or well stand, such extreme weakness and sickness oppressed us.” (16)

2. A writer selects rhetorical purpose number one: Arguing from quantity.

3. Since this sentence is cited from a historical document, the writer does not alter the passive phrases; however, she recognizes the excessive words that burden the writing, perhaps to match the “feeling” of oppression expressed in Governor Smith’s situation. Having observed the hardships in the Jamestown colony, Smith wrote his somber account of the colonists’ disease and famine experiences. To achieve his purpose, Smith wrote in passive voice. Whether he wrote knowingly or unknowingly, the effect of his indirect and tedious writing is noted.

Practice Historical Sentences

Annotations: The historical sentences refer primarily to rhetorical purposes three and four. Questions to discuss:  (1) Which information is important to emphasize? (2) Who is responsible for the events? (3) Is it important to conceal or reveal this agent?

1. Vietnam had been occupied by Japan during World War II.

2. An antiwar protest movement was ignited by the escalating fighting in the Vietnam War.

3. The governor has already raised a substantial amount of money for her re-election campaign.

4. American hostages were held by Iranian officials at the American embassy in Teheran in 1979.

5. There were fighting factions on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean during the Revolutionary War.

C. Science, Legal, and Government

First, students can read the practice scientific, legalistic, and governmental practice sentences and note the uses of passive voice. Next, they can note rhetorical purpose five (refer to section I, part C) and categorize the practice sentences according to the purpose of the agent: unimportant, unknown, or unreported. Finally, they can determine why the passive construction fits the absence of the agent.  

Example 3

Outlined below is an example to show a writer’s identification of “voice” that fulfills a rhetorical purpose in technical writing.

1. The writer reads this sample sentence in a college chemistry text and notes the passive phrase:“In this chapter [. . .] some of the physical properties of solutions will be discussed” (Goss 141).

2. The writer refers to rhetorical purpose number five: Arguing that the agent is unimportant, unknown, or unreported.

3. The writer notes that the agent (in this case, the writer) is unimportant because the textbook content has its own ethos, and the focus is on the subject of physical properties of solutions, not the writer or the discussants.

Practice Technical Sentences

Annotations: Scientific, Legalistic, and Governmental documents relate primarily to rhetorical purpose five.

Questions to discuss: (1) Is the agent known? unknown? important? unimportant? reported? unreported? (2) Why or why not?

In scientific and governmental or bureaucratic writing, passive voice constructions are acceptable. Students do not need to convert these sentences to active voice, but rather discuss their rhetorical purpose of using unknown, unimportant, or unheralded agents.

Science

1. “Vapor pressure of a liquid is the pressure exerted by the vapor in dynamic equilibrium with a liquid at room temperature” (Goss 133).

2. “The number of atoms is determined by both the coefficient and the subscript” (Goss 45).

Legal

1. “Although they differ somewhat on their facts, the two cases can be reconciled” (Weihofen 129).

2.  “If an arrest is made without a warrant is to support an incidental search, it must be made with probable cause” (Weihofen 129).

Governmental or Bureaucratic

1. The regulations are published for the benefit of all military personnel.

2. Several addendums were added to Correspondence manual to clarify the writing of memorandums.

IV. Writing Assignment

Once the basic features and uses for active and passive voice are established, create a writing assignment for students to practice using this convention. Constructing a rhetorical writing assignment with these elements will give shape to students’ writing:

Genre: Essay, letter, narrative, research paper, or other.

Purpose: To convince an audience of an argument.

Audience: A primary audience (other than their instructors) to whom the students can direct their writing.

1. Provide an example of a writing prompt.

Ex. Persuade (purpose) a local literary society (audience) holding an essay (genre) contest on why particular African Americans are political heroes/heroines.

2. Discuss how genre, purpose, and audience govern the use of active/passive voice in the writing assignment.

Ex. Writers identify their purposes:  (1) to reveal the agent, and (2) to put the agent (African American heroine, ex. Maya Angelou) in a position of emphasis.

V. Application Using a “Style and Grammar Checker”

Most word processing programs have a spelling and grammar component that highlights passive voice phrases in writing to provide opportunities for student writers to alter them.  In addition, they can follow these steps to determine the percentage of passive phrases, then ask themselves, “Why are 50% of my sentences passive? Why are 50% of my sentences active?" They can recognize the number of passive voices, then set goals to decrease the number if they are not serving their purposes. Following are steps for a Microsoft Word software program used to detect readability statistics and passive phrases:

  1. Click on Tools
  2. Click on Options
  3. Click on Spelling and Grammar
  4. Place check marks in boxes for these 3 areas: 
  5. a. Check grammar as you type
    b. Check grammar with spelling
    c. Show readability statistics
  6. Select writing style: Formal
  7. Close screen· Click Tools on toolbar· Click Spelling and Grammar
  8. Note Readability Statistics: Readability and percentage of passive sentences

Annotations: Following these steps should allow students to make more informed decisions about
the “voice” necessary to achieve a rhetorical effect for their readers. They will also become more informed peer reviewers who can respond more effectively to their peers’ use of active/passive voice. Raising students’ rhetorical awareness about “voice” prompts them to make informed decisions about when to use either voice, given their rhetorical situations. 

—Karen Wink

Works Cited

Flower, Linda. Problem-Solving Strategies for Writing. 4th ed. San Diego: Harcourt, 1993.

Fowler, H. Ramsey & Jane E. Aaron. The Little Brown Handbook. 5th ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.

Goss, D. J. Study Guide for General Chemistry: An Integrated Approach. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1999.

Aristotle. On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civil Discourse. Ed. and Trans. George Kennedy. New York: Oxford, 1991.

Queneau, Raymond. Exercises in Style. Trans. Barbara Wright. New York: New Directions, 1981.

Smith, John. From The General History. In Adventures in American Literature. Deluzain et al, editors New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1996, 16-21.

Weihofen, Henry. Legal Writing Style. Minnesota: West Publishing, 1980.

Provenance: 

Citation Format: Wink, Karen."Rhetorical Pedagogy for Active and Passive Voice" The Writing Instructor. 2002. http://www.writinginstructor.com/classroom/wink.html (Date Accessed).

Review Process: Karen Wink's essay was accepted for publication following blind, peer review.