Active and passive voices are two ways of describing how sentences create relationships between actors, actions, and objects of actions:
- Sentences in active voice put those elements in this order: Actor + Action + Object of Action.
- Sentences in passive voice put those elements in a different order, and sometimes even leave out the actor element: Object of Action + Action (+ Actor). This changes what would normally be the direct object or indirect object into the subject of a sentence.
Active voice focuses on who did what. Passive voice focuses on what had something done to it.
Consider, as you read the following examples, whether they are active or passive voice.
John threw the ball.
The above example is in active voice. In this example, John is doing something—throwing a ball.
You did not pay the bill.
The above example is in active voice. In this example, you is doing something (or in this case, not doing something!)
The ball was thrown by John.
The above example is in passive voice. In this example, the ball is having something done to it—it is being thrown by John.
The bill was not paid.
The above example is in active voice. In this example, the bill is having something done to it (or in this case, not having something done!
How can I tell if my sentence is in active or passive voice?
To identify whether a sentence is active or passive, identify whether the sentence’s subject is the actor or the object of action:
She made many mistakes.
In the above example, the subject, she, is the actor who makes the mistakes. The subject of the sentence performs the sentence’s action.
Many mistakes were made by her.
In the above example, the subject, many mistakes, are the result of an action taken by a different actor (in this case, her). The subject of the sentence has the action performed on it.
There’s also a more technical way of distinguishing between active and passive voice. Grammatically, identifying active and passive voice is a matter of figuring out what form the sentence’s main verb is in. In the passive voice, the main verb is always a combination of the verb be and the past participle of another verb. There is nothing grammatically wrong with creating this combination; however, active voice is more concise because it says the same thing with one word that you have to use two for in passive voice.
Many mistakes were [verb be] made [past participle of make] by her.
The table was [verb be] set [past participle of set] before I arrived.
The survey has been [verb be] sent [past participle of send] to the research participants, and Sandeep will conduct follow-up interviews.
Is using passive voice always wrong?
Both active and passive voice are used often in a variety of genres. Although many students have been instructed not to use passive voice, it is still a useful tool in your grammatical toolkit.
Some instructors advise against the passive voice because it is easy for sentences to become long, drawn-out, and boring. Readers tend to follow sentences better when there are characters as subjects. Active voice is more forceful and emphatic, with the action focused in fewer words. Because passive voice requires more words, it is going to take more effort to read.
The trick is to make rhetorically sound decisions about when to use active voice and when to use passive voice. Make sure that you use each one in ways that are appropriate to your genre and writing situation and that are expected by your audience. Keep reading to learn about some common situations in which either active or passive voice is considered more appropriate.
What are some common reasons to choose passive voice?
Many students have been taught not to use passive voice. However, passive voice appears in writing all the time, and there are plenty of writing situations in which it is an effective technique. These are just a few common examples of when passive voice is appropriate for particular genres and writing purposes:
1. Passive voice in scientific writing. Scientific writing often focuses on objective or factual information (this type of writing seems less likely to be biased or limited). The actors in a given situation are not as critical as the information obtained, so the passive voice is preferred, keeping the focus of the sentence on the content itself instead of the discoverer of the content.
Note: In the humanities, however, writers are encouraged to be more subjective. As in the following example, writers in the humanities would typically introduce the actors and the action in a given observation.
Active: Ellman argues that Oscar Wilde carried aestheticism to excess.
Passive: It has been argued that Oscar Wilde carried aestheticism to excess.
2. Passive voice when the actor isn’t significant/important. If the actor in the sentence isn’t the focus of the sentence, passive voice is a good way to push the focus towards the action itself instead. The use of the passive in the following example highlights the house as the subject and shifts focus away from the actor who robbed the house (by eliminating that actor from the sentence). The robber isn’t the focus here—the fact that the house was robbed is the important information in the sentence. Passive voice focuses reader attention on the action itself rather than the actor.
The house was robbed. (Instead of: Some random person robbed the house.)
3. Passive voice when the actor is “people in general” or obvious. If the actor in the sentence is the general public or obvious to the reader, you do not need to include it.
Valuables can be left in the hotel safe.
Jen was helped to her feet after the accident. (Instead of: People helped Jen to her feet after the accident.)
4. Passive voice to avoid assigning blame. Sometimes it’s preferable that no specific actor is associated with an action, especially when the action is negative. For example, printed corrections in magazines will use passive voice in order to avoid blaming a particular writer or editor for the mistakes that sometimes appear in articles. This use of the passive voice corrects the mistake without identifying who made it.
The assistant’s name, Shae Marston, was incorrectly spelled as Shae Marshall in yesterday’s article.
How can I revise active into passive voice or passive into active voice?
Identify whether the sentence is currently in active or passive voice. Remember, if the subject is performing the action, then the sentence is in active voice. If the subject is simply receiving the action, then the sentence is in passive voice. Once you have identified which voice a sentence is in, you can follow several steps to revise it into the other voice.
Active voice to passive voice
To revise an active sentence into passive voice, follow these steps:
1. Shift the object of the action into the beginning of the sentence (the subject position).
Original: You did not pay your bill.
Revised: Your bill did not pay.
2. Change the verb as needed.
Revised: Your bill was not paid.
3. If you want to keep the actor, the original subject, shift it to the end of the sentence and insert the word by in front of it.
Revised: Your bill was not paid by you.
Passive voice to active voice
To revise a passive sentence into active voice, follow these steps:
1. Shift the actor into the beginning of the sentence and move the object of the action to a position after the verb. If no actor is specified in the passive sentence (like in the following example), add one.
Original: Home computers were manufactured at increased rates throughout the 1990s.
Revised: Computer companies were manufactured home computers at increased rates throughout the 1990s.
2. Change the verb as needed.
Revised: Computer companies manufactured home computers at increasing rates throughout the 1990s.