Chapter 9-6: Active versus Passive Voice
Active Versus Passive Voice
With active voice, the subject of the sentence performs the action expressed in the verb. The sentence may have an object that receives the action, depending on the verb.
With passive voice, the subject of the sentence receives the action expressed in the verb. The sentence may or may not include who or what is performing the action.
Active or Passive Voice: Examples
In general, active voice is much more common in English than passive voice. The active voice gives a sentence a sense of immediacy and can be easier to read and understand.
Below, you can read a variety of sentences written in both active and passive voice. Each pair of sentences gives the same information, but the active focuses on who or what performs the action and the passive focuses on who or what receives the action.
We close the store every day at 6pm.
The store is closed every day at 6pm.
The veterinarian will microchip my cat tomorrow.
My cat will be microchipped at the vet's office tomorrow.
Grace filled up my water bottle for the hike.
My water bottle was filled by Grace.
The bad weather delayed our flight this to Boston.
Our flight to Boston was delayed by bad weather.
Over one-third of the applicants to the school failed the entrance exam.
The entrance exam was failed by over one-third of the applicants to the school.
Distinguishing Between Active or Passive Voice
Ask: Who is performing the action?
If you're unsure if the sentence is active or passive voice, you can answer a few questions:
What is the subject?
What is the verb?
Who or what does the action of the verb?
If the answers for #1 and #3 are the same, the sentence is using active voice.
The dog bit the boy.
What is the subject? The dog
What is the verb? Bit
Who or what does the action of the verb (bit the boy)? The dog
Because both #1 or #3 are the same, this sentence is using active voice.
Form of "To Be" + Past Participle = Passive Voice
A passive verb phrase will always include a form of be, such as am, is, was, were, are, or been plus a past participle.
Example: The Roman empire was invaded by barbarian tribes.
Example: Caleb's house will be foreclosed because he is behind on his mortgage.
The presence of a be-verb, however, does not necessarily mean that the sentence is in passive voice.
The "to be" verb may describe a state of being, not action.
Example: John is a great student.
The sentence may be using a progressive or a perfect tense.
Example: They are going to the store. (present progressive tense)
Example: When I arrived home, he had already called. (past perfect tense)
The "to be" verb, especially have or has, could be acting as a modal.
Example: We have to go the store.
To avoid mistaking active voice for passive voice, watch for the past participle used in the passive voice or use the questions above to determine who is performing the action.
Passive Voice: By Phrase After Verb Phrase
Another way to recognize passive-voice sentences is that they may include a "by the..." phrase after the verb. The agent performing the action, if named, is the object of the preposition in this phrase.
Example: The missing woman was kidnapped by her ex-husband.
Example: The Harry Potter series was written by JK Rowling.
Reasons to Avoid Passive Voice
Sometimes the use of passive voice can create awkward sentences.
Example: The brakes were slammed on by her as the car sped downhill.
The passive voice can cloud the meaning of your sentence. It may leave out important information that could make your sentence stronger if it was included.
Example: It is argued that climate change isn't real.
Who argues that climate change isn't real? Naming the agent by using active voice can create stronger writing.
Overuse of passive voice throughout an essay can cause your prose to seem flat and uninteresting. Active voice creates more immediacy, gives your subjects agency, and is more direct.
Reasons to Choose Passive Voice
Sometimes writers find using an indirect expression is rhetorically effective in a given situation, so they choose passive voice.
Writers in the sciences conventionally use passive voice more often than writers in other discourses. Passive voice makes sense when:
the agent performing the action is obvious, unimportant, or unknown
a writer wishes to postpone mentioning the agent until the last part of the sentence
a writer wishes to avoid mentioning the agent at all
The passive voice is effective in such circumstances because it highlights the action and what is acted upon rather than the agent performing the action.
Example: A new experimental liver-transplant operation was performed successfully yesterday.
Example: Their research on artificial limbs will be presented at this year's conference.
This practice helps to create the appearance of an objective, fact-based discourse because writers can present research and conclusions without attributing them to particular agents. Instead, the writing appears to convey information that is not limited or biased by individual perspectives or personal interests.
The three examples below visually demonstrate how the choice to use active voice versus passive voice can have an impact on where importance is placed. In the first image, importance is placed on who committed the murder. In the other two examples, less importance is placed on who did the murder and more so on the person that was murdered.
The butler murdered Marie.
Marie was murdered.
Passive voice, with subject
Marie was murdered by the buter.