Shifting Emphasis By Choosing The Voice

If the subject of the sentence performs the action, the sentence is in the active voice, but if the subject of the sentence is the recipient of the action, the sentence is passive.

^ Active: The team studied the genetic mutations.

Passive: The genetic mutations were studied by the team.

Although the two sentences say more or less the same thing, the emphasis is different. While the active sentence stresses the "doer," i.e., the team, the passive wording places emphasis on the subject studied, i.e., the genetic mutations. You may argue that the voice makes little difference to the overall statement, but you will notice that the passive sentence uses more words than the active sentence.

There are two ways to make a sentence active, i.e., by using a subject (such as "team" in the sentence above) plus an active verb (e.g., "studied"), or by using personal pronouns (e.g., "we"). Although the active voice should be our first choice, the exclusive use of active sentences is sometimes inappropriate and often impossible. Thus, we have to find our own "healthy" ratio of passive versus active formulations. Here is a useful rule to remember:

Q Use the active voice most of the time because it is more direct and less wordy. If you want to emphasize the action rather than the agent, use the passive voice, bearing in mind that the proportion of passive verbs should not exceed 30%.

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