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Passive Voice V/S Active Voice

Most GMAT books advise us not to use passive voice. This simplistic rule is surely questionable. In this section, we will discuss both warranted and unwarranted uses of passive voice.

  1. Uses of Active and Passive Voice
    We can use passive voice quite correctly when the performer of the action is unknown or inconsequential.

* The car was stolen during the night. (The performer of the action is unknown.)

* The program has been cancelled. (It is not important for us to know who postponed the program.)

* We had to take a detour because the highway was blocked. (it does not matter who blocked the road. What we are interested in is the blocked highway!)

When the performer of the action is not important, we need to use active voice. But, when the receiver of the action or the action is important, it is advisable to use passive. Study the following sentences to understand the importance of this focus.

* The sun is predicted to become a red giant in five billion years, because, by then, it will have depleted all its hydrogen, the energy fuel of the star.

? Scientists have predicted the sun to become a red giant in five billion years, because all its hydrogen, the energy fuel of the star, will be depleted by then.

In the first sentence, the passive voice focuses on the sun, whereas the second sentence, using active voice, focuses on the scientists. In the second part the active voice is preferable because it appropriately focus on the sun. But the use of passive in this part, as in the second sentence, shifts the focus to the hydrogen gas. Moreover, it makes the sense incomplete by not stating who depleted the hydrogen gas. Given the context, the first sentence is preferable to the second one.


Abuse of Passive

Though passive voice is quite effective in some situations, it makes the sentences wordy and sometimes long noun phrases the construction demands make the sense unclear, and unfathomable in extreme cases. Study the following example.


?
Recognition of creative thinking by managers is required so that competitive edge over the competitors is achieved by the companies.

* Managers need to recognize creative thinking so that the companies acquire competitive edge over the competitors.

 

Voice
Study the following sentences and identify justified or unjustified passive. Rewrite the sentence after removing unjustified passive.

  1. Local traditions and value systems must be conformed to by the multinationals seeking to explore local markets in developing economies to succeed.
  2. The quantum repulsion of its free electrons, not the dynamic pressures created by gasses, protects a white dwarf from gravitational collapse.
  3. A lot of qualifications regarding the pay scale revision were put across by the management during its negotiations with the labor union leaders.
  4. The fact that the insurance companies are focusing on micro-insurance is crucial because, traditionally, insurance has never really been expanded beyond urban geographies.
  5. Housing costs account for substantial proportion of expenditure in urban areas; more than 60% of tenants with an annual income of $75,000 spend more than 30% of their annual income on housing and related expenses.
  6. A recent survey has brought out surprising facts about middle income groups; more than 30% of their annual income is spent on housing and related expenses by more than 60% of tenants with an annual income of $75,000.
  7. Although Griffith somewhat uncannily won the public acclaim through his film ‘the Birth of a Nation’, people now discredit his view of the American History.
  8. Respected as much for his integrity as for his sporting prowess, the general public has accepted the sports star to be the best brand ambassador the company has ever had.
  9. Though most of people blame file-sharing on the internet for copy right violation, this very file-sharing, in fact, has increased the incentives for creativity of authors and music artists.
  10. Though of considerable value in developing what later came to be known as oral history, only generous definitions of the word call ‘oral history’ the early efforts to record firsthand accounts of the past.

 Keys

  1. Multinationals seeking to explore local markets in developing economies must conform to local traditions and value systems to succeed.
    Explanation: In the given sentence, the focus of the sentence is on the multinationals seeking to explore local markets. Thus, using local traditions and value systems as the subject removes this focus. Thus, active voice is preferable.
  2. A white dwarf is protected from gravitational collapse, not by the dynamic pressures created by gasses, but by the quantum repulsion of its free electrons.
    Explanation: The focus here is on what protects a white dwarf. Despite the popular belief that use of passive deemphasizes the agent, it sometimes emphasizes the agent by postponing it to the later part and thus, by creating a sort of ‘suspense’. The correction performs this function quite effectively.
  3. The management put across a lot of qualifications regarding the pay scale revision during its negotiations with the labor union leaders.
    Explanation: The long noun phrase acting as the subject makes the sentence difficult to read and obscures the importance of management’s action during the negotiations. Thus, to make things clear and to focus correctly, we need an active voice.
  4. The fact that the insurance companies are focusing on micro insurance is crucial as traditionally they have never really expanded insurance beyond urban geographies.
    Explanation: The use of passive in the second clause shifts the subject and thus the contrast to be shown is lost. When we show contrast like this, it is not advisable to switch the subject.
  5. Housing costs account for a substantial proportion of expenditure in urban areas; more than 30% of the annual income is spent on housing and related expenses by more than 60% of tenants with an annual income of $75,000.
    Explanation: the sentence after semi-colon should talk about high housing cost. Thus the sentence should use this expenditure as the subject. Thus, passive is better in this construction.
  6. A recent survey has brought out surprising facts about the middle income groups; more than 60% of tenants with an annual income of $75,000 spend more than 30% of their annual income on housing and related expenses.
    Explanation: In this sentence, the focus is on middle income groups. Thus, passive is not justified in the context as in the case of the earlier sentence.
  7. Although Griffith somewhat uncannily won the public acclaim through his film ‘the Birth of a Nation’, his view of the American history is now discredited.
    Explanation: Using the subject people in the main clause cannot bring the needed contrast. The contrast must be between his winning public acclaim and his view being discredited. Thus, the passive is required in the main clause.
  8. Respected as much for his integrity as for his sporting prowess, the sports star has been accepted to be the best brand ambassador the company has ever had.
    Explanation: The sentence can be faulted on two fronts. Firstly, the general public’s acceptance is not the focus of the sentence. Secondly, by using the subject audience in the sentence, the sentence creates dangling modifier error.
  9. Though file-sharing on the internet is blamed for copy right violation, this very file-sharing has, in fact, increased the incentives for creativity of authors and music artists.
    Explanation: Though the sentence uses active voice, the agent of action is neither important nor relevant to the context of the sentence. Moreover, the contrast intended is not effectively brought out. File-sharing is blamed for infringement, but it actually increases the incentives. To bring out this contrast, we need to maintain the same subject whether we use active or passive.
  10. Though of considerable value in developing what later came to be known as oral history, early efforts to record firsthand accounts of the past can be termed as ‘oral history’ only by generous definitions of the word.

The sentence needs ‘early efforts’ as the subject in the main clause. Or else, it results in dangling modifier error. Furthermore, the use of active voice not only shifts the emphasis but also creates confusion. We are not sure whether oral history is called early efforts or early efforts are called oral history. Thus, the correction with passive corrects both the errors.





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