Who ate the cake? Reviewing research on the active voice

Earnsy Liu | September 15, 2022

A few crumbs sit on an empty grey plate.

If you say ‘I ate the cake’, you’re using the active voice. Image by CA Creative / Unsplash licence

Your mum comes home and notices the empty plate. ‘Who ate the last slice of cake?’ she asks.

Uh oh. You need to confess that you ate the cake — the cake she had been looking forward to eating! How would you answer?

I’m guessing you’d say, ‘I ate the cake.’ That sentence uses what we call the active voice, which starts with the actor (person who did the thing) and sounds natural.

The other two answers are in the passive voice. If you use passive voice, you put the actor at the end of the sentence, or you don’t mention the actor at all. It can make your writing feel distant, more formal, or both.

At Write, we recommend using the active voice. It’s more concise, more natural, and easier to relate to.

Is active voice better?

Publicly available research (not information behind paywalls) suggests that it’s hard to work out whether active or passive voice is better. It depends what you mean by ‘better’.

Passive voice can be just as clear in context

A study of technical specifications found that passive voice can be as clear as active voice — but only when things were read in context.

Download ‘The myth of bad passive voice and weak words’ from ResearchGate (PDF, 270KB)

Some students found the passive voice clearer

A study of 161 second-year chiropractic students found that research papers were clearer when written in the passive voice. However, the researchers wondered if the students preferred the passive voice because they were used to it.

Read ‘The passive voice and comprehensibility of biomedical texts’ on the National Library of Medicine’s website

Some engineers chose the active voice for clarity

One US study found that engineers chose to write in the active voice to be clear and sound human. They still used plenty of passive voice. But they used the active voice when they wanted to:

One participant said, ‘My goal is to make it easy for the reader… Nobody wants to have to read a sentence twice to understand it.’

Read ‘Where grammar, content, and professional practice meet’ on the ASEE website

Active voice feels more immediate and concrete

Five studies involving subjects in Canada, Britain, Australia, and the US found that the active voice makes things seem closer, more concrete, and more likely to have happened. To me, that sounds like people find it easier to relate to the active voice.

Read the article ‘Active or passive’ on the University of Toronto Alumni’s website

Passive voice can be challenging if English isn’t your first language

People who speak English as an additional language can find the passive voice hard, especially its structure and change of tense. And no, it’s not just people with a particular first language who struggle. One study looked at 30 first-year Nigerian undergraduates who had learnt English for 12 years. Another study involved 58 Thai undergraduates.

Download ‘Learning the English passive voice’ from the International Journal of English and Literature (PDF, 521KB)

Download ‘Passive voice learning problems of first-year students’ from Thai Journals Online (PDF, 455KB)

Let’s use active voice where appropriate

The research suggests that the active voice isn’t always easier to understand. But if people with English as an additional language struggle with the passive voice, should we use it sparingly?

Using the active or passive voice isn’t an all-or-nothing choice though. Avoiding it entirely isn’t possible or appropriate. Passive has its place — for example, when the actor isn’t important, or when you don’t want to identify the actor.

Read the full article to see what we found

If you’d like to find out more, you can read the original article here:

Should we use the active or passive voice? — TechCommNZ

Insights, tips, and professional development opportunities.