Passive Voice or Active Voice? Are Both Acceptable in Your College Paper?

The answer to this question is, yes, but with the caveat; it depends upon when and how you use them. The passive voice is better for certain purposes and the active voice is better for others. Most college papers will require you to use the active voice. However, you will find exceptions to this rule below.

What Are the Passive and Active Voices?

The active voice is a grammatical construction that you would use when the subject does the action designated by the verb. In this voice the agent or performer of the action is emphasized. When using it you would write:

The nurse helped the patient.

The subject of the sentence, the nurse, is doing the action. She helped the patient.

The passive voice is a grammatical construction that you would use when the subject of a sentence or clause denotes the recipient of the action. In this voice the emphasis is on the receiver of the action. When using it, you would change the same sentence to read:

The patient was helped by the nurse.

In this sentence, the subject becomes the patient, but the patient is passive, meaning he isnΓÇÖt doing anything.

Why is there emphasis on using the active voice in college papers?

When you are writing a college paper, it is always best that you use the active voice because you obviously cannot be vague about a source or write as though some facet of your research is irrelevant. You cannot write your paper as though you have no idea whether your data is true or false and you want to be vigorous and clear about your conclusions. Changing any passive voice sentences to active voice will tighten your writing. The active voice is the voice of clarity and demonstrates sureness of fact and source, and so it is the best way to phrase your thoughts.

When Is It Better To Use the Passive Voice?

1. When the actor is unknown.

The cave drawings were made around 10,000 years ago.

In this sentence we donΓÇÖt know who made them.

2. When the actor is irrelevant.

The assault required a battalion of troops.

We are not interested in which battalion.

3. You want to be vague about who is responsible.

According to sources…

This is a common practice with journalists.

The proper use of passive or active voice can vary within a paper. As I mentioned earlier, you will likely use the active voice in most cases. However, where applicable, based on the rules above, you can use the passive voice without losing points.

One area that you can lose points over is the proper formatting of your paper. Your professor will assign you a formatting style, either APA, MLA, or another. Typically, these formatting styles are specific to certain disciplines. For example, you will use the APA format for scientific and social scientific courses, including nursing. You can take extra time and edit your paper to the formatting guidelines and hope you donΓÇÖt miss any errors or you can use formatting software that will guarantee you adhere to the latest standard with just a couple of clicks. WouldnΓÇÖt you rather spend your time focusing on the quality of your content than on proper formatting?

David Plaut is the founder of Reference Point Software (RPS). RPS offers a complete suite of easy-to-use formatting template products featuring MLA and APA style templates, freeing up time to focus on substance while ensuring formatting accuracy. For more information, log onto or write to:
info @

Reference Point Software is not associated with, endorsed by, or affiliated with the American Psychological Association (APA) or with the Modern Language Association (MLA).

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