What's the Problem With Passive Voice? -->

Where instructors and editors talk writing.

What's the Problem With Passive Voice?

Regular readers of the Walden Writing Center blog will know that we’ve written about passive voice before. As Rachel pointed out in her blog post, passive voice constructions are grammatically correct. So why does APA prefer active voice? Why do instructors urge students to change “a study was conducted” to “I conducted a study?”

Getting an answer can sometime seem as vague as the tasting notes on a fine bottle of wine. Strunk and White wrote that passive voice is “less bold” while active voice is more “vigorous” and “direct” (p. 18). But again, students may raise the question: Why is passive voice less bold and vigorous? And what are the factors that make it so?
What's the Problem With Passive Voice?

George Orwell, in his classic essay "Politics and the English Language," argued that passive voice is a form of writing that leads to sloppy thinking. According to Orwell, “the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts” (para. 2). These foolish thoughts, Orwell implied, are easier to have when language is purposefully confusing or deceptive. Following Orwell, many thinkers have since echoed the idea that passive voice constructions are a form of dodging responsibility. After all, “mistakes were made,” is quite a different statement than “I made a mistake.”

But it’s not just a lack of accountability that leads APA and others to prefer active voice constructions. APA also addresses economy of expression, reminding writers that “short words and short sentences are easier to comprehend than are long ones” (p. 67).  Because of the structure of passive voice and the inclusion of an auxiliary verb, passive voice constructions are almost always longer than active voice ones.

In short, clarity, accountability, and conciseness are just a few reasons that APA, George Orwell, Walden instructors, and Strunk and White all recommend active voice.

When he's not helping Walden students write to the best of their abilities, Writing Instructor Jonah Charney-Sirott enjoys writing fiction.


  1. The passive voice is formed with "to be" plus the past participle.

    active: the dog bites me.
    passive: I am bitten by the dog.

    None of your examples are in the passive voice.

    1. Thanks for your comment. You’re right that passive voice is usually made up of a form of "to be” with a past participle. With active voice, the subject of the sentence performs the action that the verb expresses. We don’t use many examples of passive voice in this post, but the examples that we use are in passive voice.

      Passive: a study was conducted
      Active: I conducted a study

      Passive: mistakes were made
      Active: I made a mistake (or I made mistakes)

  2. Thanks, your comments on passive voice versus active voice, which have allowed me to understand the key difference between the two words. Example, active voice is more clear and tells the reader who's accountable for the action in the sentence. Whereas, passive voice sends the reader on a guess-who-did-it journey.

    Maria Khave'

    1. Thanks Maria! Glad that you are finding our content helpful!