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Stop Sounding “Smart”: Using the Passive Voice
An English Major’s Unconventional Writing Tips
For those people who are not literarily inclined, writing essays can be an overwhelming experience. Maybe you’re like my brother who has only ever “read” the Michael Phelps biography audiobook. (I’m sure it’s a great choice.) Maybe the only thing you’ve “written” is a U of C confession about a cutie in your class. (Your anonymous post will definitely start a long-lasting relationship.) I’ve noticed students who are new to academic writing tend to overcompensate with their writing style. They don’t feel confident in their abilities so they attempt to emulate writers they believe “sound smart.” University students are exposed to fancy academics who intentionally write so you need a PhD to understand them – can’t have the peasants understanding your work – so this is who students try to sound like. The irony is, instead of sounding smart, your writing sounds just as complicated and confusing as your readings but without the academic career to back it up.
The most obvious sign that a student isn’t confident about their writing ability is when they use the passive voice instead of the active voice. To understand the difference between these voices, first compare these two sentences:
- I failed all my exams.
- The exams were all failed by me.
Active voice is when a subject performs an action denoted by a verb:
- I (subject) failed (verb) all my exams.
Passive voice is when the verb acts upon the subject and typically starts with an object:
- The exams (object) were all failed (verb) by me (subject).
…in terms of sentences, subjects really should be more important. In the physical world, subjects are the ones doing things.
Now, I’m sure you’ve had a professor gripe on about using the active voice and you simply wondered, “what the duck is active voice?” before the school was dropped out of by you. Maybe, all this talk of verbs has you wondering why you weren’t paying attention in middle-school English. (This is where the whole problem of cuties in your classes started, isn’t it?) If you really break it down, the active voice makes logical sense. What is more important: people (subjects) or material items (objects)? If you’re not a huge fan of people, you can substitute that with animals, which will probably get a lot more of you on board here. Either way, in terms of sentences, subjects really should be more important. In the physical world, subjects are the ones doing things. Hate to break it to you, but if the exams are all failed by you, you are the one disgracing your family by not becoming the doctor they always wanted, not the exam. (The exam has a supportive family, okay.) This means that if you write in the active voice, your sentences will be easier to understand because your sentences will be mimicking how action works in the real world.
In the previous example, I think it is clear why the passive voice is unnecessarily confusing. But the passive voice is sneakier when students start writing about complex theories or concepts they only Wikipedia-ed five minutes ago. When you’re unsure about a concept, the passive voice keeps you distanced from your ideas. To further understand this distance, look at these sentences:
- Textbook prices were raised by the publishing company executives.
- The publishing company executives raised the textbook prices.
In the first example, the emphasis is on the publishing company, but in the second, whoever raises textbook prices (Satan) is emphasized. Now that you know this, you’ll start noticing that the passive voice often appears when someone makes an unpopular announcement.
I think distinguishing the difference between the active and passive voice when it comes to academic concepts can be especially confusing. This is because an academic theory is technically an object but it is immaterial. These types of examples blur the line between the passive and the active voice. Here is an example:
- Psychoanalytic theory by Sigmund Freud reveals that Hamlet’s behavior signifies an Oedipus complex in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
This sentence is technically correct, but is it psychoanalytic theory revealing that Hamlet has an Oedipus complex? Or is it Hamlet obsessing over who sleeps with his mom that reveals this Oedipus complex? (The answer is yes, it is weird to fetishize your mom’s “incestuous sheets,” Hamlet.) You can’t physically see or hear psychoanalytic theory but you can use it to think. (This is what first-year psych students are overanalyzing you about.) If you start thinking of academic theories as objects, you’ll keep the emphasis on the subjects in your sentences.
If your writing is already confusing because you have no idea what you’re talking about, at least make it a little stronger by talking about it in the clearest style possible.
Hopefully, with these examples, you can distinguish when you start falling into the passive voice. The passive voice may seem “smart” as many academics do use it but really it inhibits clear, concise writing. If your writing is already confusing because you have no idea what you’re talking about, at least make it a little stronger by talking about it in the clearest style possible. Then your professor has a hope of understanding what you were trying to say when you wrote your 4 a.m. Red-Bull induced essay extravaganza.
So, moral of the story: if you’re going to fail all your exams, at least fail actively!
Barbara Baker is a fourth-year English major; she can confirm that all it involves is answering increasingly difficult questions about Harry Potter. You can tell she is an English major because she used a semicolon. Was it unnecessary? Absolutely! A breakfast enthusiast and pasta connoisseur, her sole arm workout is holding up books while reading in bed.