Grammar Made Easy

Subtitle

Active Voice  vs. Passive Voice

          If there is one thing most people remember from their high school or college composition classes, it's that you are not supposed to use the passive voice in your writing.

          But like most of the "rules" of writing (and many of the "rules" of grammar and usage), this one isn't really a rule.  There are some times when the passive voice is appropriate, and some times when it is even needed.

          In general, it is best to think of writing not as rule-driven, but rather as context-sensitive.*  Even if a "rule" is useful 99% of the time, rigidly applying it in the rare case where it isn't appropriate will undermine the effectiveness of your writing.  I prefer to think of most of the so-called rules of writing as guidelines, some more generally applicable than others.

          The rule against using the passive voice happens to be an appropriate guideline most of the time.  You are more likely to write badly by ignoring it than by following it.  But it's still better to make your writing choices consciously than to go on automatic pilot and let the "rules" do all your writing for you.

What is the passive voice, and what is it used for?


          Verbs in English are inflected to show five main traits: person, number, tense, voice, and mood.

          Voice is determined by whether the subject of the sentence is the agent or the receiver of the action of a transitive verb.  (A transitive verb is one that takes a direct object.**)

                    ~I broke the window.

                    ~The boys ate all of the pie.

                    ~With the money from her mother's life insurance Diane                                bought a new car and took a trip to Europe.

In the preceding examples, which are in the active voice, the agent of the action is the subject of the sentence.  But in the next set of examples, which are in the passive voice, the receiver of the action is the subject of the sentence.

          ~The window was broken. 
          ~The window was broken by me.

          ~All of the pie was eaten.
          ~All of the pie was eaten by the boys.

          ~With the money from her mother's life insurance a new car was                bought and a trip to Europe was taken.
          ~With the money from her mother's life insurance a new car was                bought and a trip to Europe was taken by Diane.

          Notice that when a sentence is written in the passive voice, the agent of an action can be omitted.  That is part of the appeal of the passive voice to certain writers.  If the writer wishes to obscure responsibility for an action, then the passive voice allows him to eliminate all reference to the person who committed the act.  Think of how often statements coming out of the Nixon White House during Watergate were couched in the passive voice: e.g.,
Mistakes were made.

          Even if the agent of an action is mentioned in a passive voice sentence, the emphasis is not on the actor, but on the receiver of the action.  The subject slot in a sentence is the starring role.  Anyone or anything relegated to a little sidecar of a prepositional phrase tacked on at the end of the sentence is not being emphasized at all.

          ~The window was broken. 
          ~The window was broken by me.

          ~All of the pie was eaten.
          ~All of the pie was eaten by the boys.

          In these sentences, the fact that the window was broken or that the pie was eaten sits front and center.  In the examples without agents, no one in particular appears to be responsible for the broken window or the devoured pie.  And even in the sentences where the guilty parties make an appearance, they do so in a way that does not call attention to them.

          But sometimes the agent of an action needs to be omitted.  For example, the textual conventions*** governing lab reports do not permit the use of the first person ("I" or "we") at all, and in fact any mention of the researchers, even in the third person, is frowned upon.  Thus, lab reports are filled with clauses like these:  the pigeons were observed over a period of three weeks; the subjects were divided into three groups; members of the control group were given a placebo. . . .

          The reason for this convention is that science is supposed to be objective, and removing all reference to the researchers emphasizes that stance of objectivity.  It's almost as if disembodied hands are performing the experiments, and disembodied eyes are observing the results.****

          The use of the passive voice in lab reports also keeps the spotlight focused on the experiment itself, rather than yanking it over to the researchers.  It's a matter of emphasis.

          Now, here are a few passive voice sentences from earlier in this very article, and one from another article on this website:

          ~Notice that in these sentences, the fact that the window was                     broken and the pie was eaten sits front and center. 

          ~Anyone or anything relegated to a little sidecar of a prepositional             phrase tacked on at the end of the sentence is not being                           emphasized at all.

          ~Another problem with many English classes is that students are             usually taught by teachers that think writing is "rule-driven."


          Now watch what happens to my intended meaning and emphasis if I try to recast these as active voice sentences:

          ~Notice that in these sentences, the fact that someone broke the               window and someone ate the pie sits front and center. 

          ~When anyone or anything is relegated to a little sidecar of a                       prepositional phrase tacked on at the end of the sentence, then               the writer is not emphasizing that person or thing at all.

          ~Another problem with many English classes is that the teachers             usually think that writing is "rule-driven."

          Obviously, the sentences using the passive voice convey my meaning more precisely.  In the first two, switching to the active voice moves the emphasis away from the points I wish to emphasize.  And in the third sentence, I have completely lost the reference to the students.


          The 95% "rule"

          I think of the passive voice as one of the tools available to me as a writer.  A handyman has many tools, and some of them are needed more often than others.  But just because hammers and screwdrivers are appropriate for more tasks than some of the more exotic tools in his toolbox, that doesn't mean he should just throw away all of the other tools.  At some point he is bound to come across a task that calls for that weird little thingamajig he almost never uses, and when that happens, he will use that very thingamajig,  not a hammer or a screwdriver.  On the other hand, he would be very foolish to try using that odd little tool when all he wants to do is drive a nail or tighten a screw.

          Even though it is true that the passive voice is sometimes needed, that doesn't mean it should be used very often.  I tell my own students to make sure that at least 95% of their verbs are in the active voice.*****

          In fact, even that may be too generous.  No passive voice verb should be allowed to stand unless it can justify itself.  In other words, every time you use a passive verb, ask yourself why you are using a passive construction there.  If you don't have a good reason for it, then rewrite the sentence to use the active voice.  Many, even most, of your essays will have no need at all for the passive voice, so keep it tucked away in the bottom of your toolbox and bring it out only to do those jobs that can't be done by the active voice.
 
by Tina Blue
July 5, 2002

Active and Passive Voice

Active Voice

Graphics for this were produced by Michelle Hansard.

In sentences written in active voice, the subject performs the action expressed in the verb; the subject acts.

 

 

In each example above, the subject of the sentence performs the action expressed in the verb.

Would you like to see examples of all the verb tenses in active voice? Go to the bottom of the page.

Passive Voice

In sentences written in passive voice, the subject receives the action expressed in the verb; the subject is acted upon. The agent performing the action may appear in a "by the . . ." phrase or may be omitted.

 

 

(agent performing action has been omitted.)

Sometimes the use of passive voice can create awkward sentences, as in the last example above. Also, overuse of passive voice throughout an essay can cause your prose to seem flat and uninteresting. In scientific writing, however, passive voice is more readily accepted since using it allows one to write without using personal pronouns or the names of particular researchers as the subjects of sentences (see the third example above). 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.

You can recognize passive-voice expressions because the verb phrase will always include a form of be, such as am, is, was, were, are, or been. The presence of a be-verb, however, does not necessarily mean that the sentence is in passive voice. 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.

Would you like to see examples of all the verb tenses in passive voice?Go to the bottom of the page.

Choosing Active Voice

In most nonscientific writing situations, active voice is preferable to passive for the majority of your sentences. Even in scientific writing, overuse of passive voice or use of passive voice in long and complicated sentences can cause readers to lose interest or to become confused. Sentences in active voice are generally--though not always-- clearer and more direct than those in passive voice.

passive (indirect)

active (direct):

Sentences in active voice are also more concise than those in passive voice because fewer words are required to express action in active voice than in passive.

passive (more wordy)

active (more concise)

Changing passive to active

If you want to change a passive-voice sentence to active voice, find the agent in a "by the..." phrase, or consider carefully who or what is performing the action expressed in the verb. Make that agent the subject of the sentence, and change the verb accordingly. Sometimes you will need to infer the agent from the surrounding sentences which provide context.

Passive Voice

Agent

Changed to Active Voice

most of the class

agent not specified; most likely agents such as "the researchers"

the CIA director and his close advisors

agent not specified; most likely agents such as "we"

 Choosing Passive Voice

While active voice helps to create clear and direct sentences, sometimes writers find that using an indirect expression is rhetorically effective in a given situation, so they choose passive voice. Also, as mentioned above, 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 or when a writer wishes to postpone mentioning the agent until the last part of the sentence or 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.

active

passive

The dispatcher is notifying police that three prisoners have escaped.

Police are being notified that three prisoners have escaped.

Surgeons successfully performed a new experimental liver-transplant operation yesterday.

A new experimental liver-transplant operation was performed successfully yesterday.

"Authorities make rules to be broken," he said defiantly.

"Rules are made to be broken," he said defiantly.

In each of these examples, the passive voice makes sense because the agent is relatively unimportant compared to the action itself and what is acted upon.

Changing active to passive

If you want to change an active-voice sentence to passive voice, consider carefully who or what is performing the action expressed in the verb, and then make that agent the object of a "by the..." phrase. Make what is acted upon the subject of the sentence, and change the verb to a form of be + past participle. Including an explicit "by the..." phrase is optional.

Active Voice

Agent

Changed to Passive Voice

The presiding officer

The leaders

The scientists

In each of these examples, the passive voice is useful for highlighting the action and what is acted upon instead of the agent.

Some suggestions

1. Avoid starting a sentence in active voice and then shifting to passive.

Unnecessary shift in voice

Revised

Many customers in the restaurant found the coffee too bitter to drink, but it was still ordered frequently.

Many customers in the restaurant found the coffee too bitter to drink, but they still ordered it frequently.

He tried to act cool when he slipped in the puddle, but he was still laughed at by the other students.

He tried to act cool when he slipped in the puddle, but the other students still laughed at him.

2. Avoid dangling modifiers caused by the use of passive voice. A dangling modifier is a word or phrase that modifies a word not clearly stated in the sentence.

Dangling modifier with passive voice

Revised

To save time, the paper was written on a computer. (Who was saving time? The paper?)

To save time, Kristin wrote the paper on a computer.

Seeking to lay off workers without taking the blame, consultants were hired to break the bad news. Who was seeking to lay off workers? The consultants?)

Seeking to lay off workers without taking the blame, the CEO hired consultants to break the bad news.

3. Don't trust the grammar-checking programs in word-processing software. Many grammar checkers flag all passive constructions, but you may want to keep some that are flagged. Trust your judgement, or ask another human being for their opinion about which sentence sounds best.

Verbs- Voice and Mood

Active and Passive voice:

Verbs in the active voice show the subject acting. Verbs in the passive voice show something else acting on the subject. Most writers consider the active voice more forceful and tend to stay away from passives unless they really need them.

ACTIVE: Tim killed the chicken hawk.

PASSIVE: The chicken hawk was killed by Tim.

Indicative, Imperative, and Subjunctive Mood:

Most verbs we use are in the indicative mood, which indicates a fact or opinion:

Examples:

·He was here.

·I am hungry.

·She will bring her books.

Some verbs are in the imperative mood, which expresses commands or requests. Though it is not stated, the understood subject of imperative sentences is you.

Examples:

· Be here at seven o'clock. (Understood: You be here at seven o'clock.)

· Cook me an omelette. (Understood: You cook me an omelette.)

· Bring your books with you. (Understood: You bring your books with you.)

When verbs show something contrary to fact, they are in the subjunctive mood.

When you express a wish or something that is not actually true, use the past tense or past perfect tense; when using the verb 'to be' in the subjunctive, always use were rather than was:

Examples:

· If he were here... (Implied: ...but he's not.)

· I wish I had something to eat. (Implied: ...but I don't.)

· It would be better if you had brought your books with you. (Implied: ...but you haven't brought them.)

Review

INDICATIVE: I need some help.

IMPERATIVE: Help me!

SUBJUNCTIVE: If I were smart, I'd call for help.

Active Verb Tenses

 

Simple Present

Present or Action Condition

General Truths

· I hear you.

·Here comes the bus.

· There are thirty days in September.

Non-action; Habitual Action

Future Time

· I like music.

· I run on Tuesdays and Sundays.

· The train leaves at 4:00 p.m.

 

Present Progressive

Activity in Progress

Verbs of Perception

· I am playing soccer now.

· He is feeling sad.

 

Simple Past

Completed Action

Completed Condition

· We visited the museum yesterday.

·The weather was rainy last week.

 

Past Progressive

Past Action that took place over a period of time

Past Action interrupted by another

·They were climbing for twenty-seven days.

·We were eating dinner when she told me.

 

Future

With will/won't — Activity or event that will or won't exist or happen in the future

With going to — future in relation to circumstances in the present

·  I'll get up late tomorrow.

· I won't get up early

· I'm hungry.

· 'm going to get something to eat.

 

Present Perfect

With verbs of state that begin in the past and lead up to and include the present

To express habitual or continued action

· He has lived here for many years

·He has worn glasses all his life.

With events occurring at an indefinite or unspecified time in the past — with ever, never, before

· Have you ever been to Tokyo before?

 

Present Perfect Progressive

To express duration of an action that began in the past, has continued into the present, and may continue into the future

·David has been working for two hours, and he hasn't finished yet.

 

Past Perfect

To describe a past event or condition completed before another event in the past

In reported speech

·When I arrived home, he had already called.

·Jane said that she had gone to the movies.

 

Future Perfect

To express action that will be completed by or before a specified time in the future

· By next month we will have finished the job.

· He won't have finished his work until 2:00.

 

Passive Verb Tenses

Simple Present

Active:

Passive

· The company ships the computers to many foreign countries.

· Computers are shipped to many foreign countries

Present Progressive

Active:

Passive:

· The chef is preparing the food.

· The food is being prepared.

Simple Past

Active:

Passive:

· The delivery man delivered the package yesterday.

· The package was delivered yesterday.

Past Progressive

Active:

Passive:

· The producer was making an announcement.

· An announcement was being made.

Future

Active:

Passive:

· Our representative will pick up the computer.

· The computer will be picked up.

Present Perfect

Active:

Passive:

· Someone has made the arrangements for us.

· The arrangements have been made for us.

Past Perfect

Active:

Passive:

· They had given us visas for three months.

· They had been given visas for three months.

Future Perfect

Active:

Passive:

· By next month we will have finished this job.

· By next month this job will have been finished.

Modals

Active:

Passive:

· You can use the computer.

· The computer can be used.