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Point of View in Writing and the Active/Passive Voice

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Point of View in Writing and the
Active/Passive Voice
Adopted from College Writing Skills by John Langan, Purdue OWL, and
The Bedford Handbook for Writers by Diana Hacker
Point of View
When you write, you can take any of
three approaches, or points of view:
first-person, second-person, or third person.
First-Person Approach
• This is a strongly individualized point of
view—you draw on your own experience
and speak to your audience in your own
voice, using pronouns like I, me, mine, we,
our, and us.
• This approach emphasizes you, the writer
and is a good choice for informal letters and
writing based primarily on personal
Example: First –Person Point of
View Paragraph on Camping
First of all, I like comfort when I’m camping. My GMC
motor home, with its completely equipped kitchen,
shower stall, toilet, double bed, and color television,
resembles a mobile motel room. I can sleep on a real
mattress, clean sheets, and fluffy pillows. Next to my
bed are devices that make me feel at home: a radio, an
alarm clock, and a TV remote-control unit. Unlike the
poor campers huddled in tents, I don’t have to worry
about cold, rain, heat, or annoying insects. After a hot
shower, I can slide into my pajamas, sit comfortably on
my down-filled quilt, and read the latest best-seller while
a thunderstorm booms outside.
Second-Person Approach
• In this approach, the writer speaks directly to the
reader, using the pronoun you.
• This approach emphasizes the reader and
• works well for giving advice, instructions, or
explaining how to do something.
• Otherwise, as a general rule, never use the word you
in writing.
Third-Person Approach
• This approach is the most common point of view in
academic writing.
• In the third-person, the writer includes no direct
references to the reader (you) or the self (I, me). It
derives its name from its stance—that of an outsider or
third-person observing and reporting on matters of
public rather than private importance.
• This approach emphasizes the subject and draws on
information that the writer has acquired through
observation, thinking, or reading. It is appropriate in
formal academic and professional writing.
Example: Third-Person Point of
View Paragraph on Camping
First of all, modern campers bring complete bedrooms with
them. Winnebagoes, GMC motor homes, and Airstream
trailers lumber into America’s campgrounds every summer
like mobile motel rooms. All the comforts of home are
provided inside. Campers sleep on real mattresses with
clean sheets and fluffy pillows. Next to their beds are the
same gadgets that litter their night tables at home—radios,
alarm clocks, and TV remote –control units. It’s not
necessary for them to worry about annoyances like cold,
heat, rain, or buzzing insects. They can sit comfortably in
bed and read the latest best-sellers while a thunderstorm
booms outside.
Coherence suffers whenever a draft shifts
confusingly from one point of view to another.
The solution is to choose a suitable perspective
and then stay with it.
Example 1:
One week our class met in a junkyard to practice
rescuing a victim trapped in a wrecked car. We
learned to dismantle the car with the essential tools.
You (We) were graded on your (our) skill in
extricating the victim.
Example 2:
One of the fringe benefits of my job is that you (I)
can use a company credit card for gasoline.
Shifting Point of View Activity
• 1. Ron refuses to eat pepperoni pizza because he says it
gives you (him) indigestion.
• 2. When I buy lipstick or nail polish, you (I) never know
how the color will actually look.
• 3. All you (I) could hear was the maddening rattle of the
heating registers, even though I buried my face in the
• 4. Hank searched the roadside mailboxes for the right
name, but you (he) couldn’t see much in the pouring rain.
• 5. As we pulled on the heavy door, you (we) could tell it
wasn’t going to budge.
Active Verbs (Active Voice) Versus
Passive Verbs (Passive Voice)
• Active verbs express meaning more emphatically
and vigorously than their weaker counterparts—
forms of the verb be or verbs in the passive voice.
• Forms of the verb be (be, am, is, are, was, were,
being, been) lack vigor because they convey no
• Verbs in the passive voice lack strength because
their subjects receive the action instead of doing it.
Passive: The coolant pumps were destroyed by a surge of power.
Active: A surge of power destroyed the coolant pumps.
Furthermore, carefully
selected verbs can energize a
piece of writing.
Original: The goalie crouched low, reached out his stick, and
sent the rebound away from the mouth of the net.
Revised: The goalie crouched low, swept out his stick, and
hooked the rebound away from the mouth of the
If using a be verb makes a
sentence needlessly wordy,
consider replacing it.
Original: Burying nuclear waste in Antarctica would be in
violation of an international treaty.
Revised: Burying nuclear waste in Antarctica would violate
an international treaty.
Prefer Active Voice
• In the active voice, the subject of the sentence does
the action.
• In the passive voice, the subject receives the action.
• Although both voices are grammatically correct, the
active voice is usually more effective because it is
simpler, more direct, and less wordy.
• Example 1: Active: The committee reached a
• Example 2: Passive: A decision was reached by the
To change a sentence from the passive to the active voice,
determine carefully who or what is performing the action.
Passive: The book is being read by most of the class.
Active: Most of the class is reading the book.
Sometimes the performer of the action does not appear in
a passive-voice sentence.
Passive: Results will be published in the next issue
of the journal.
Active: The researchers will publish their results in
the next issue of the journal.
Choosing Passive Voice
• In scientific writing, passive voice is more
readily accepted since using it allows one to
write without using personal pronouns or
the names of particular researchers.
• This practice helps to create the appearance
of an objective, fact-based paper.
Recognizing Passive Voice
Passive voice has three basic characteristics:
• A form of the verb to be (is, am, are, was,
were, be, been, or being).
• A past participle (a verb ending in “ed” or
“en” except irregular verbs like kept).
• A prepositional phrase beginning with
The first sentence uses all three characteristics:
The meeting is being held by the human resources
It’s a great honor to be applying to a
prestigious company.
Unnecessary Shifts
• Avoid starting a sentence in active voice
and then shifting to passive.
Original: Many customers in the restaurant found the coffee
too bitter to drink, but it was still ordered
Revised: Many customers in the restaurant found the coffee
too bitter, but they still ordered it frequently.
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