APA: Active Voice vs. Passive Voice

The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (2010), hereby referred to as the “APA manual,” only touches on its preference for the active voice (p. 77). But what do active voice and passive voice mean, exactly?

The active voice emphasizes the doer of the action. (In this case, “we”.)

We shocked the rats.

The passive voice emphasizes the action or result, not the doer. (In this case, the shocking of the rats.)

The rats were shocked.

(Note that the people shocking the rats aren’t even mentioned.)

The APA manual uses the following example to demonstrate when it is appropriate to use the passive voice (in this case, in the Methods section) (p. 77):

The speakers were attached to either side of the chair.

Here’s what that sentence would look like in the active voice (not preferred in the Methods section).

The students attached the speakers to either side of the chair.

In the above sentence, the emphasis is placed on the students, the doers of the action.

In prose too, the active voice is preferred, but the passive voice still has an important role: it adds variety, and relief, to the slew of active sentences. Here’s when to use the passive voice correctly and effectively:

  • When the doer of the action is unknown or unimportant.

    Televisions are no longer considered a luxury in homes.

    (Active: We no longer consider televisions a luxury in homes.)

  • When the result of an activity is more important than the doer.

    Thousands of dead frogs were sighted near the toxic spill.

    (Active: The toxic spill killed thousands of frogs.)

If you have any examples to share or questions to ask, please feel free to comment on this post. And share this post with fellow students to help them out!

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