Active Voice vs. Passive Voice
What is Active Voice?
When the subject of a sentence is doing the main action of the sentence, we say that the sentence is written in the active voice:
- Katy kicked the winning field goal.
Katy = subject
Kicked = main verb
Winning field goal = object
What is Passive Voice?
When the subject of a sentence is receiving the main action of the sentence, we say that the sentence is written in the passive voice:
- The winning field goal was kicked by Katy.
The winning field goal = subject
Was kicked = verb
Katy = object
In a passive voice sentence, the subject is passive — that is, it sits there and has something done to it. The field goal gets kicked.
How to Construct the Passive Voice
Subject + form of the verb “to be” + past participle of the main verb
- Little Johnny was given a time-out.
- Thanksgiving is celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November.
When to Use the Passive Voice
The passive voice is often maligned by teachers — and by computer-driven grammar checkers — but it does have its uses. (Note the passive construction in that last sentence!)
1) Passive voice emphasizes the receiver of the action more than the doer:
- On July 4, flags are hung along the streets of many American towns.
- The Declaration of Independence was first drafted by Thomas Jefferson.
- The stockings were laid by the chimney with care.
2) Passive voice is often used to describe events, or the way that something happened:
- The Berlin Wall was torn down in 1989.
- The film was written, shot and edited in six weeks.
- Your nails are clipped, then filed and painted.
3) We sometimes use passive voice when we don’t know who did the action:
- The laptop was taken from the dressing room.
- The thermostat has been set to 65 degrees.
- The missiles were moved at some point in the last three weeks.
- The last meringue has been stolen!
4) Passive voice can be useful when describing general opinions:
- In North America, it is considered bad manners to burp at the table.
- A diet rich in fruits and vegetables is thought to promote longevity.
5) Scientific writing often contains passive construction:
- The contents of the test tube were heated to 200 degrees Kelvin.
- The Rover was instructed to collect the soil sample.
Passive or Active: Which is better?
Think twice before using passive construction. Active verbs and active construction lend energy to your prose, and can make your writing more engaging. When you revise your essays, consider all of your uses of the verb “to be,” and see if you can come up with more energetic verbs as alternatives. Hunt for all of the “is”es, “was”es, “were”s, “has beens” and “have beens,” and make sure you’re taking every opportunity to excite your reader!
- Passive: The wand would have been used by Harry if it had not been thrown into the lake by Hermione.
- Active: Harry would have used his wand if Hermione had not thrown it into the lake.
- Passive: My pajamas were on, my teeth were clean, and my hair was combed before my sleeping bag was crawled into by me.
- Active: I donned my pajamas, brushed my teeth, and combed my hair before I crawled into my sleeping bag.
- Passive: It is now believed that a meteor strike may have been responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs.
- Active: Many scientists now believe that a meteor strike may have caused the extinction of the dinosaurs.
- Even more active: Many scientists now believe that an asteroid slammed into the earth, throwing up a cloud of dust so thick that it blocked the sun, lowered global temperatures and killed off the dinosaurs.
- Passive: The field mouse was spotted by the hawk as it soared overhead.
- Active: Soaring overhead, the hawk spotted the field mouse.
NOTE: In this last example, the use of the passive voice runs the risk of confusing the meaning of the sentence. Who “soared overhead”? The hawk or the mouse?
David Travis is the founder and CEO of Prospect Prep, a New York City-based tutoring agency dedicated to helping students earn better grades, higher scores, and acceptance letters from the colleges of their dreams.
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