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Passive Voice Versus Active Voice: Writing Review Study Guide

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Updated on Aug 25, 2011

Practice exercises for this concept can be found at Passive Voice Versus Active Voice: Writing Review Practice Exercises.

In writing, the term voice is often used to refer to the particular way that you are expressing your thoughts and ideas. Just like when you talk, when you write, you have a unique voice. Without even realizing it, you may alter your voice based on what you are writing and to whom you are writing. For instance, you would not use the same voice to write a letter to the president as you would to write an e-mail to your friend. You would use a more informal voice when writing to your friend.

Pace Yourself

For fun, trying writing a paragraph in someone else's voice, such as a friend's or even a pet's.

Most of the time, we aren't aware of what type of voice we are using. It just comes out naturally. However, just as the formality of your voice has an effect on your final product, so does whether your voice is active or passive. Often, active and passive voices are used incorrectly in writing. Let's learn what these voices are and when to use them, so that the voice in your writing can be as strong and as clear as possible.

Active Voice

What Is It?

In active voice, the subject of the sentence does the action of the sentence. For instance, look at this sentence.

Bob is walking the dog.

Bob is the subject of the sentence. Walking the dog is what is being done in the sentence. Who is walking the dog? Bob is walking the dog. So, the subject (Bob) is the one who is doing the action (walking the dog).

Here's another example.
You always laugh at my jokes.
You is the subject. Laugh is the action. Who laughs? You laugh.

Passive Voice

What Is It?

In passive voice, the subject of the sentence receives the action of the sentence. Let's go back to Bob and his dog for a second. Here's what that sentence would look like if it were written in passive voice.

The dog is being walked by Bob.

This time, the subject of the sentence is the dog, but the action is still the same. The action is being walked, but Bob is the one who is doing the action. Bob is walking the dog. In this case, the dog is receiving the action.

Here's another sentence written in passive voice.
The pool was cleaned by Janice.

The subject of the sentence is the pool. The action of the sentence is the cleaning of the pool. Who is doing the cleaning? Janice, not the pool, is doing the cleaning. The pool is receiving the action, which is why the sentence is passive. If we rewrote the sentence using the active voice, it would sound much better.

Janice cleaned the pool.
Caution!

Sometimes people use passive voice because they think it's more formal. Avoid using it, even in formal writing.

The passive voice is also used in cases in which the subject that is doing the verb is unknown. Here's an example.

My car was stolen.

My car is the subject of the sentence, and the stealing of the car is the action of the sentence. The car receives the action. Because who did the stealing is unknown, it is acceptable to write the sentence in the passive voice. If it turns out that a man named Richard stole the car, then the sentence could be written in active voice, like this:

Richard stole my car.
Inside Track

Ask yourself who or what the sentence is supposed to be about. Is the subject of the sentence who or what you intended?

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