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11.9: Active vs. Passive Voice

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  • Active and Passive Voice

    Voice is a nebulous term in writing. It can refer to the general “feel” of the writing, or it can be used in a more technical sense. In this section, we will focus on the latter sense as we discuss active and passive voice.

    You’ve probably heard of the passive voice—perhaps in a comment from an English teacher or in the grammar checker of a word processor. In both of these instances, you were (likely) guided away from the passive voice. Why is this the case? Why is the passive voice so hated? After all, it’s been used twice on this page already (three times now). When the passive voice is used to frequently, it can make your writing seem flat and drab. However, there are some instances where the passive voice is a better choice than the active.

    So just what is the difference between these two voices? In the simplest terms, an active voice sentence is written in the form of “A does B.” (For example, “Carmen sings the song.”) A passive voice sentence is written in the form of “B is done by A.” (For example, “The song is sung by Carmen.”) Both constructions are grammatically sound and correct.

    Let’s look at a couple more examples of the passive voice:

    • I’ve been hit! (or, I have been hit!)
    • Jasper was thrown from the car when it was struck from behind.

    You may have noticed something unique about the previous two sentences: the subject of the sentence is not the person (or thing) performing the action. The passive voice “hides” who does the action. Despite these sentences being completely grammatically sound, we don’t know who hit “me” or what struck the car.

    The passive is created using the verb to be (e.g., the song is sung; it was struck from behind). Remember that to be conjugates irregularly. Its forms include am, are, is, was, were, and will be, which we learned about earlier in the course.

    Remember, to be also has more complex forms like had been, is being, and was being.

    • Mirella is being pulled away from everything she loves.
    • Pietro had been pushed; I knew it.
    • Unfortunately, my car was being towed away by the time I got to it.

    Because to be has other uses than just creating the passive voice, we need to be careful when we identify passive sentences. It’s easy to mistake a sentence like “She was falling.” or “He is short.” for a passive sentence. However, in “She was falling,” was simply indicates that the sentence takes place in the past. In “He is short,” is is a linking verb. If there is no “real” action taking place, is is simply acting as a linking verb.

    There are two key features that will help you identify a passive sentence:

    • Something is happening (the sentence has a verb that is not a linking verb).
    • The subject of the sentence is not doing that thing.
    Video \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    Active vs Passive Voice in Your Writing. Provided by: GCFLearnFree.org. License: All Rights Reserved. License Terms: Standard YouTube License.

    Usage

    As you read at the two sentences below, think about the how the different voice may affect the meaning or implications of the sentence:

    • Passive voice: The rate of evaporation is controlled by the size of an opening.
    • Active voice: The size of an opening controls the rate of evaporation.

    The passive choice slightly emphasizes “the rate of evaporation,” while the active choice emphasizes “the size of an opening.” Simple. So why all the fuss? Because passive constructions can produce grammatically tangled sentences such as this:

    Groundwater flow is influenced by zones of fracture concentration, as can be recognized by the two model simulations (see Figures 1 and 2), by which one can see . . .

    The sentence is becoming a burden for the reader, and probably for the writer too. As often happens, the passive voice here has smothered potential verbs and kicked off a runaway train of prepositions. But the reader’s task gets much easier in the revised version below:

    Two model simulations (Figures 1 and 2) illustrate how zones of fracture concentration influence groundwater flow. These simulations show . . .

    To revise the above, all I did was look for the two buried things (simulations and zones) in the original version that could actually do something, and I made the sentence clearly about these two nouns by placing them in front of active verbs. This is the general principle to follow as you compose in the active voice: Place concrete nouns that can perform work in front of active verbs.

    Exercise 1

    Are the following sentences in the active or passive voice?

    1. Jayden drank more sodas than anyone else at the party.
    2. The samples were prepared in a clean room before being sent out for further examination.
    3. Karen was dancing with Joshua when she suddenly realized she needed to leave.
    4. Carlos was a very serious scientist with unique interests.
    5. When I returned to my room, my luggage had been stolen.

    Show Answer

    Answer
    This sentence uses the active voice. Jayden does the action (drank) to the object (more sodas). If this sentence were written in the passive it would read “More sodas were drunk by Jayden than by anyone else at the party.” This sentence uses the passive voice. The action (prepared) was done to the subject of the sentence (samples). If this sentence were written in the active it would be something like this: “[Actor] prepared the samples in a clean room before sending them out for further examination.” Since we do not know who prepared the samples, the active sentence is incomplete. This sentence uses the active voice. In this case was indicates that the sentence happened in the past; it does not indicate the passive voice in this instance. This sentence uses the active voice. In this case was is acting as a linking verb. It links Carlos with the phrase very serious scientist. The introductory phrase to the sentence (When I returned to my room) is in the active voice. The second phrase (my luggage had been stolen) uses the passive voice.

    Revising Weak Passive-Voice Sentences

    As we’ve mentioned, the passive voice can be a shifty operator—it can cover up its source, that is, who’s doing the acting, as this example shows:

    • Passive: The papers will be graded according to the criteria stated in the syllabus.
      • Graded by whom though?
    • Active: The teacher will grade the papers according to the criteria stated in the syllabus.

    It’s this ability to cover the actor or agent of the sentence that makes the passive voice a favorite of people in authority—policemen, city officials, and, yes, teachers. At any rate, you can see how the passive voice can cause wordiness, indirectness, and comprehension problems.

    Passive Question Active
    Your figures have been reanalyzed in order to determine the coefficient of error. The results will be announced when the situation is judged appropriate. Who analyzes, and who will announce? We have reanalyzed your figures in order to determine the range of error. We will announce the results when the time is right.
    With the price of housing at such inflated levels, those loans cannot be paid off in any shorter period of time. Who can’t pay the loans off? With the price of housing at such inflated levels, homeowners cannot pay off those loans in any shorter period of time.
    After the arm of the hand-held stapler is pushed down, the blade from the magazine is raised by the top-leaf spring, and the magazine and base. Who pushes it down, and who or what raises it? After you push down on the arm of the hand-held stapler, the top-leaf spring raises the blade from the magazine, and the magazine and base move apart.
    However, market share is being lost by 5.25-inch diskettes as is shown in the graph in Figure 2. Who or what is losing market share, who or what shows it? However, 5.25-inch diskettes are losing market share as the graph in Figure 2 shows.
    For many years, federal regulations concerning the use of wire-tapping have been ignored. Only recently have tighter restrictions been imposed on the circumstances that warrant it. Who has ignored the regulations, and who is now imposing them? For many years, government officials have ignored federal regulations concerning the use of wire-tapping. Only recently has the federal government imposed tighter restrictions on the circumstances that warrant it.

    Exercise 2

    Convert these passive voice sentences into the active voice. Why is the active voice a better choice for each of these sentences?

    1. The process, which was essential for the experiment’s success, was completed by Enzo.
    2. The cake that I worked on all day long is being eaten by Justin.
    3. After the pattern has been applied to the fabric, work on the embroidery can be started.
    Answer

    Enzo completed the process, which was essential for the experiment’s success.

    • In the passive sentence, the which-clause makes the subject of the sentence excessively long. By converting the sentence to the active voice, the clause is moved to the predicate, which makes the sentence easier to understand.
    Justin is eating the cake that I worked on all day long.
    • The active voice works better in this sentence for the same reasons as sentence one. It is also likely that you would want to put emphasis on Justin in this sentence. After all, he’s doing something that is (most likely) inconsiderate.
    After you apply the pattern to the fabric, you can start working on the embroidery.
    • This sentence is likely found in a set of instructions, which are usually written directly to the reader. Addressing “you” and avoiding the passive voice will make the instructions feel more natural and accessible.

    Don’t get the idea that the passive voice is always wrong and should never be used. It is a good writing technique when we don’t want to be bothered with an obvious or too-often-repeated subject and when we need to rearrange words in a sentence for emphasis. The next page will focus more on how and why to use the passive voice.

    Using the Passive Voice

    There are several different situations where the passive voice is more useful than the active voice.

    • When you don’t know who did the action: The paper had been moved.
      • The active voice would be something like this: “Someone had moved the paper.” While this sentence is technically fine, the passive voice sentence has a more subtle element of mystery, which can be especially helpful in creating a mood in fiction.
    • When you want to hide who did the action: The window had been broken.
      • The sentence is either hiding who broke the window or they do not know. Again, the sentence can be reformed to say “Someone had broken the window,” but using the word someone clearly indicates that someone (though we may not know who) is at fault here. Using the passive puts the focus on the window rather than on the person who broke it, as he or she is completely left out of the sentence.
    • When you want to emphasize the person or thing the action was done to: Caroline was hurt when Kent broke up with her.
      • We automatically focus on the subject of the sentence. If the sentence were to say “Kent hurt Caroline when he broke up with her,” then our focus would be drawn to Kent rather than Caroline.
    • A subject that can’t actually do anything: Caroline was hurt when she fell into the trees.
      • While the trees hurt Caroline, they didn’t actually do anything. Thus, it makes more sense to have Caroline as the subject rather than saying “The trees hurt Caroline when she fell into them.”

    Note: It’s often against convention in scholarly writing to use I. While this may seem like a forced rule, it also stems from the fact that scholars want to emphasize the science or research as opposed to the author of the paper. This often results in the passive voice being the best choice. This is not the case in other formal settings, such as in resumes and in cover letters.

    Exercise 3

    Consider the following instances. In each case, determine why the writers might want to use active or passive voice. Write an example sentence based on their circumstances.

    1. Antonella made an error in her calculations that ruined an experiment. This error ended up costing both time and materials. She has to write a report to her boss. What might she say about the experiment?
    2. Isabel is writing a supernatural thriller. Her main character, Liam, notices that his keys aren’t where he left them. How might Isabel word this realization?
    3. Thiago is writing a cover letter to apply for a new job. He is listing out tasks that he does at his current job. How would he want to word these items?
    Answer

    Antonella would likely want to write in the passive voice. Even if her boss knows she made the error, writing in the passive will draw attention away from that fact. She might say something like this:

    • An error was made that ended up costing time and resources. The experiment will have to be repeated with new materials.
    Isabel could use either the passive or the active. It depends on the emphasis she wants. The passive voice subtly hints at a mysterious actor. The active voice blatantly states it:
    • Liam’s keys had been moved when he wasn’t looking.
    • Something—or someone—had moved Liam’s keys when he wasn’t looking.
    Thiago would want to use the active voice. Since he’s apply for a job, he would want to emphasize the fact that he is accomplishing the tasks: the fact that he’s doing them is more important than the simple fact that the things were done. He might write something like the following:
    • I currently work as a teaching assistant for a linguistics professor. I organize her mail, flagging important items so she knows what needs immediate attention; I aid her in her research, finding interesting articles and studies; and I often help her students when her attention is needed elsewhere.

    Using the Passive

    Now that we know there are some instances where passive voice is the best choice, how do we use the passive voice to it fullest? The answer lies in writing direct sentences—in passive voice—that have simple subjects and verbs. Compare the two sentences below:

    • Photomicrographs were taken to facilitate easy comparison of the samples.
    • Easy comparison of the samples was facilitated by the taking of photomicrographs.

    Both sentences are written in the passive voice, but for most ears the first sentence is more direct and understandable, and therefore preferable. Depending on the context, it does a clearer job of telling us what was done and why it was done. Especially if this sentence appears in the “Experimental” section of a report (and thus readers already know that the authors of the report took the photomicrographs), the first sentence neatly represents what the authors actually did—took photomicrographs—and why they did it—to facilitate easy comparison.

    Exercise 4

    Read the following sentences. Are they using the passive effectively? If there are any errors, rewrite the sentences accordingly.

    1. The machine needs to be reset at 10:23, 11:12, and 11:56 every night.
    2. The final steps, which need to be finished before the sun sets over the mountains, are going to be completed by Kajuana.
    3. The difficult task of measuring minute fluctuations in weight was made easier by the use of a new digital scale.
    Answer

    Yes. In this case, it doesn’t matter who accomplishes the action; it simply needs to be done. If this sentence appears in an academic article, the passive may be even more appropriate, as that style often demands the actor be left out of the sentence. No. This would be better in the active voice. There are a lot of different parts to the sentence, and by converting the sentence to the active voice, they come in a more logical order that is easier to understand:

    • Kajuana is going to complete the final steps, which need to be finished before the sun sets over the mountains.
    No. This passive construction is very convoluted. An active sentence would serve well here:
    • A new digital scale made it easier to measure minute fluctuations in weight.

    As we mentioned in Participles, the passive voice can also be used following relative pronouns like that and which.

    • I moved into the house that was built for me.
    • Adrián’s dog loves the treats that are given to him.
    • Brihanna has an album that was signed by the Beastie Boys.

    In each of these sentences, it is grammatically sound to omit (or elide) the pronoun and to be. Elision is used with a lot of different constructions in English; we use it shorten sentences when things are understood. However, we can only use elision in certain situations, so be careful when removing words! You may find these elided sentences more natural:

    • I moved into the house built for me.
    • Adrián’s dog loves the treats given to him.
    • Brihanna has an album signed by the Beastie Boys

    Additional Practice Exercises

    Exercise 5

    Convert these passive voice sentences into the active voice:

    1. Alana’s toes were crushed by the garage door.
    2. The passive voice has likely been heard of by you.
    3. Rebeca’s favorite spot in the lecture hall had been taken by the time she got to class.
    4. When the passive voice is overused, you often end up with flat writing.

    Answer

    The garage door crushed Alana’s toes. You’ve likely heard of the passive voice. Because there’s a descriptive phrase, there are a few options when revising this sentence:

    • Someone had taken Rebeca’s favorite spot in the lecture hall by the time she got to class.
    • By the time Rebeca got to class, someone had taken her favorite spot in the lecture hall.
    When you overuse the passive voice, you often end up with flat writing.

    Exercise 6

    Read the following sentences. Are they using the passive effectively? Or should they be rewritten as active sentences?

    • Maren was hit by several branches as she slid down the hill.
    • A lot of discussion about whether technology is hurting or helping our ability to communicate has been inspired by this increase in technology.
    • Listeners are encouraged by the lyrics to cast aside their fear and be themselves.

    Answer

    Yes, this sentence uses the passive effectively. Since the subject of this sentence—several branches—can’t actually do anything, it’s best to put the emphasis on Maren, the person the actions were done to. This sentence does not use the passive well. The passive voice has made the sentence a lot more complicated then it needs to be. The active would read something like this:

    • This increase of technology has inspired a lot of discussion about whether technology is hurting or helping our ability to communicate.
    Either voice could be appropriate here. If you want to focus on the listeners, the passive voice is correct. If you want to focus on the lyrics, the sentence should be changed to the active voice.
    • Passive: Listeners are encouraged by the lyrics to cast aside their fear and be themselves.
    • Active: The lyrics encourage listeners to cast aside their fear and be themselves

    Contributors and Attributions

    This page most recently updated on June 8, 2020.