Voice in a sentence is either active or passive. This means that a sentence has either a direct or an indirect connection between the grammatical subject-verb pair and the real concepts behind the subject-verb pair.
In the sentence “I made mistakes,” the grammatical subject “I” connects directly to the real meaning, which is I, myself, the author. And the grammatical verb “made” connects directly to the real meaning, which is made, committed, did. This means that this sentence is in active voice. Active voice is the standard voice in college writing.
But in the sentence “Mistakes were made,” something different happens. The grammatical subject “mistakes” isn’t the real meaning of who made the mistakes. It connects only indirectly to the real meaning, which is I, myself, the author. And the grammatical verb “were made” allows this indirectness to happen, for it allows the subject to shift to a concept that gets acted upon, rather than something or someone doing the action. In other words, the real meaning of the subject is hidden. This means the sentence is in passive voice.
Typically, active voice is better for your sentences in college essays. It clarifies the ideas by getting you closer to saying what you mean. Passive voice often weakens your sentences by helping you avoid saying what you mean. However, as with all writing choices, this choice of voice should be guided by your subject, audience, and purpose. Some scenarios make passive voice a better option for clarity and directness. What’s most important as a writer is that you have the awareness and ability to use either voice.
Some excellent examples of active versus passive voice and their uses are available later in this textbook in Strunk’s Elements of Style, rule 10. But here are a handful of simple examples:
- She took a walk.
- I submitted my essay late.
- The company fired me.
- Citizens across the city felt angry.
- People don’t respect nurses enough.
- A walk was being taken by me.
- The essay was submitted late.
- I got fired.
- Anger was felt across the city.
- Nurses aren’t respected enough.
Notice in both sets of examples that the first two sentences are stronger and clearer in active voice. But the third sentences are roughly interchangeable; neither is clearly superior. And in the last two sentences, active voice puts emphasis on “citizens” and “people” when it is more likely that those ideas distract from the writer’s purpose, so passive voice is probably a superior style choice in those circumstances.