Active and Passive Voice

1. What is the “voice” in a sentence?

In English, we can use active or passive verbs to determine the focus of a sentence. These form the voices of a sentence: the active voice and the passive voice. Most of the time, we write and speak in the active voice because it is the clearest and easiest way to share information. In general, teachers encourage students to avoid the passive voice in their writing, though there are exceptions.

 

2. Active and Passive Verbs

Voice is determined by the way that a verb is used in a sentence- its active form or its passive form.

  • An active verb results in the subject doing the action in the sentence
  • A passive verb results in the subject being acted upon, formed by the verb “to be” and the past participle form of the main verb in the sentence.

Here is a chart to help you see the difference between the use of active and passive verbs.

Sentences with ACTIVE VERBSSentences with PASSIVE VERBS
The fox ate pancakes.Pancakes were eaten by the fox.
He is eating dinner. Dinner is being eaten by him.
Today the fox took a test.Today a test was taken by the fox.
Many foxes can speak Spanish.Spanish is spoken by many foxes.
I made the cookies.The cookies were made by me.
Very few people own pet foxesPet foxes are owned by very few people.
You can cook popcorn on the stove.Popcorn can be cooked on the stove.

As you can see, all of the passive sentences include the verb “to be” and the past participle form of the main verb. The active sentences only have the active form of the main verb.

 

3. Types of Voice

As you now know, a sentence’s verb determines which type of voice it will use: the active or the passive.

a. Active Voice

In English, the best way to write and speak is almost always with the active voice. Basically, the active voice puts emphasis on the most important part of the sentence, so it’s the clearest, most direct way to share information.

With the active voice, the subject acts, so we can say that the subject is being “active.” In other words, the subject does the action to the object: A does B to C. Like this:

  • The dog burned the popcorn. Active Voice

Here, the dog (S) burned (V) the popcorn (O). You can see that the verb comes immediately after the subject. Let’s try another:

  • He bit my hand. Active Voice

Here, he (S) bites (V) the hand (O); “he” does the action “bite.”

b. Passive Voice

Since we usually write and speak using the active voice, it’s important to know about its opposite: the passive voice. You’ve probably heard that the passive voice is “bad,” but may not know why. The main reason is that the passive voice changes the focus of a sentence by stating its meaning in a less direct way.

With the passive voice, the subject is acted upon, so we can say that the subject is being “passive” in the sentence. It receives the action instead of doing it and “gets” the verb from the object: A gets B by C. Look at these sentences:

  • The popcorn was burned by the dog. Passive voice
  • The dog burned the popcorn. Active Voice

Here, “popcorn” is the focus because it’s the subject in the sentence: “popcorn” gets “burned” by the dog. But the second sentence is the clearer way to share this information, directly telling who did what.

With the passive voice, sometimes the subject is undefined, so it’s unclear what is “doing” the verb in the sentence, like this:

  • My hand was bitten. Passive voice

Here, we don’t know who or what does the biting in the sentence, just that the hand “gets” bitten. This also puts the emphasis of the sentence on “bitten.” Really, the writer wants to say that the hand was bitten by someone. So let’s add an object:

  • My hand was bitten by the dog. Passive voice
  • The dog bit my hand. Active Voice

Here, we know who did the biting, but it’s still an indirect way of sharing the situation because the hand “gets” bitten by the dog. We can avoid this type of problem by using the active voice.

 

4. How to Avoid the Passive Voice

As a rule, the best way to form a successful sentence is by using the active voice. While the passive voice is grammatically correct, most of the time you should avoid it because there is a clearer way to write your sentence.

Sometimes, people think that the passive voice sounds more elegant or formal, since the active voice is the most direct (and usually shortest) way to say something. But, making a sentence longer doesn’t always make it better— in most cases, it’s unnecessary and can make your writing:

  • unclear or harder to follow
  • focus on the wrong part of a statement or
  • sound strange.

An easy way to identify the passive voice is by finding the verb in the sentence and looking at its form. With the passive voice, the verb is combined with “to be,” like this:

  • The popcorn was eaten by the dog (was + eaten) = PASSIVE VOICE
  • The popcorn has been eaten by the dog (has been + eaten) = PASSIVE VOICE

To make the sentence active, we want to remove the passive version of the verb and “to be,” and be more direct, like this:

  • The dog ate the popcorn (ate, no verb “to be”) = ACTIVE VOICE

By using the active voice instead of the passive voice, your writing will be clearer, more concise, and overall more effective.

 

5. When is it Okay to Use the Passive Voice?

You may be wondering: if the passive voice is so bad, why does it even exist? The passive voice may have a bad reputation in English writing, but the truth is there are some cases where the passive voice is a better choice. For example, in formal documents, research reports, and other similar works, the action or the object is often the most important thing in the sentence. In those cases, the passive voice expresses meaning better, since the active voice focuses on whom or what does the action. Imagine a report discussing new discoveries about trees:

  • Other scientists reviewed the research about trees. Active voice: wrong emphasis
  • The research about trees was reviewed by other scientists. Passive voice: better choice

The important information here is that the research was reviewed. Because the report is about trees, NOT about the “other scientists,” “other scientists” shouldn’t be the focus of the sentence. Since the passive voice puts the emphasis on “research about trees” and the verb “reviewed,” it is the better choice for this situation.

Furthermore, we sometimes use the passive voice when we want to emphasize an object (what) rather than a subject (who). Read these examples:

  • The fox’s cozy home was visited by many of his friends. Passive Voice
  • Many friends visited the fox’s cozy home. Active voice

Depending on the author’s intentions, both of these sentences are correct. In the first sentence, the focus is on the underlined phrase, “the fox’s cozy home.” If the author wants the focus to be about “the fox’s cozy home” (what), then the passive voice is the better choice. But, if the author wants to focus to be on the “many friends” that visit the home (who), then the active voice is the right choice. Let’s add to these sentences to make it clearer:

  • The fox’s cozy home was visited by many of his friends. It was filled with comfortable chairs, there was always a warm fire, and it smelled like cookies.
  • Many friends visited the fox’s cozy home. Badgers, rabbits, hedgehogs, field mice, and even frogs went there to hang out.

So, as you can see, in the first sentence the author uses the passive voice to focus on the cozy home, because the overall focus of the writing is the home. In the second sentence, we need the active voice because the focus should be on the friends.

Test your Knowledge

1.
“A gets B by C” follows the pattern of ___________.

a.

b.

c.

2.
TRUE or FALSE: There are special times when the passive voice is the better choice.

a.

b.

3.
The most direct way of writing, “A does B to C,” is the pattern of ______________.

a.

b.

c.

4.
What’s wrong with this sentence?

The popcorn was cooked by the fox.

a.

b.

c.

d.

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