English Corner – The Passive Voice

The passive voice occurs when you make the object of an action into the subject of a sentence. This is because of whoever or whatever is performing the action is not the grammatical subject of the sentence. Take a look at this passive rephrasing of a familiar joke in the English language:

Why was the road crossed by the chicken?

Who is doing the action in this sentence? The chicken is the one doing the action in this sentence, but the chicken is not in the spot where you would expect the grammatical subject to be. Instead, the road is the grammatical subject.

The more familiar phrasing (why did the chicken cross the road?) puts the actor in the subject position, the position of doing something—the chicken (the actor/doer) crosses the road (the object). We use active verbs to represent that “doing,” whether it be crossing roads, proposing ideas, making arguments, or invading houses (more on that shortly).

Once you know what to look for, the passive voice is easy to spot. Look for a form of “to be” (is, are, am, was, were, has been, have been, had been, will be, will have been, being) followed by a past participle. (The past participle is a form of the verb that typically, but not always, ends in “-ed.” Some exceptions to the “-ed” rule are words like “paid” (not “payed”) and “driven.” (not “drived”).

Here’s a sure-fire formula for identifying the passive voice:

Form of “to be” + past participle = passive voice

For example:

The metropolis has been destroyed by the dragon’s fire blasts.

When her house was invaded, Penelope had to think of ways to delay her auction.

Not every sentence that contains a form of “have” or “be” is passive!

Let’s briefly look at how to change passive voice sentences into active ones. You can usually just switch the word order, making the actor and subject one by putting the actor up front:

The metropolis has been destroyed by the dragon’s fire blasts.

The passive sentence, when converted into an active sentence:

The dragon destroyed the metropolis with his fire blasts.

When her house was invaded, Penelope had to think of ways to delay her auction.

This passive sentence, when it is converted into an active sentence:

After robbers invaded her house, Penelope had to think of ways to delay her auction.

To repeat, the key to identifying the passive voice is to look for both the form of “to be” and the past participle, which usually, but not always, ends in “-ed.”

Sometimes, the passive voice is the best choice. Here are a few instances when the passive voice is quite useful:

1. To emphasize an object. Take a look at this example:

60 Senate votes are required to pass the bill.

This passive sentence emphasizes the number of votes required. An active version of the sentence (“The bill requires 60 votes to pass”) would put the emphasis on the bill, which may be less dramatic.

2. To de-emphasize an unknown subject/actor. Consider this example:

Over 120 different contaminants have been dumped into the river.

If you don’t know who the actor is—in this case, if you don’t actually know who dumped all of those contaminants in the river—then you may need to write in the passive voice. Please remember though, if you do know the actor, and if the clarity and meaning of your writing would benefit from indicating him/her/it/them, then use the active voice.

Also, please consider the third example which is listed below:

3. If your readers don’t need to know who’s responsible for the action.

Here’s where your choice can be difficult; some sentences are less clear than others. Try to put yourself in the reader’s position to anticipate how he or she will react to the way you have phrased your thoughts. Here are two examples:

(passive) Baby Sophia was delivered at 3:30 a.m. yesterday.

(active) Dr. Susan Jones delivered baby Sophia at 3:30 a.m. yesterday.

The first sentence might be more appropriate in a birth announcement sent to the family and friends—they are not likely to know Dr. Jones and are much more interested in the “object” (the baby) than in the actor (the doctor). A hospital report of yesterday’s events might be more likely to focus on Dr. Jones’ role in delivering the baby.

Active and Passive Voice Examples – Different Grammar Tenses

Simple Present TenseTwice a month, Brian cleans his apartment. (Active)

Twice a month, the apartment is cleaned by Brian. (Passive)

Simple Past Tense – John fixed the doorknob. (Active)

The doorknob was fixed by John. (Passive)

Simple Future Tense / will – He will finish his job by 5 PM today. (Active)

The job will be finished by 5 PM today. (Passive)

Simple Future Tense / going toJackie is going to cook dinner tonight. (Active)

Dinner is going to be cooked by Jackie tonight. (Passive)

Present Progressive TenseAs of now, Corey is creating a Science project. (Active)

As of now, the science project is being created by Corey. (Passive)

Past Progressive TenseThe detective was working on the mystery murder case when his partner picked up another clue. (Active)

The mystery murder case was being worked on by the detective when his partner picked up another clue. (Passive)

Future Progressive Tense (will)

At 10:00 PM tonight, HBO will be airing the new Vice special. (Active)

At 10:00 PM tonight, the new Vice special will be airing on HBO. (Passive)

I hope that this ‘English Corner’ blog post has made clear when to use the passive voice and under which circumstances can its usage best be applied. As an English language learner, you’ll need to be comfortable with using both the passive voice and the active voice in order to become a better English writer and speaker. Please use the examples given to better your understanding of this English topic as well as how the active and passive voices are set up in the past, the present, and the future tenses. 

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English Corner – The Active Voice

Every writer has a voice but it’s important to be able to distinguish which is the correct voice to use depending upon the context. There are two main voices in English writing to be aware of: the active voice and the passive voice. In this ‘English Corner’ blog post, we will be focusing specifically on how to use the active voice in your writing, which means that the subject of the sentence is actually creating the action and not the other way around.

The ‘active voice’ adds more impact to your writing, which is why most writers use the active voice instead of the passive voice. Overall, I would argue that the active voice is more important than the passive voice yet you should know how to use both effectively as an English writer.

Active Voice Usage

Sentences written in an active voice flow better and are easier to understand. When you use the active voice, the emphasis is on the subject of the sentence, which is doing the action itself. This makes the sentence straightforward and concise. Examples are:

  • I really love this TV show.
  • Gorillas live in the jungle. 

Sentences that use a passive voice are often harder to understand. Passive voice can make a sentence awkward and vague. The emphasis of the sentence changes to the receiver of the action. Some examples are:

  • This TV show is loved by me.
  • The jungle is where the gorillas live.

Passive sentences usually have more words than active ones, which is one reason why the reader has to work harder to get the meaning of the sentence, and the sentence structure can seem disorderly. If you have a composition that is too difficult to understand, you may be able to change some passive sentences to active ones. Two examples are:

  • The electoral ballots were counted by the volunteers. (passive)
    The volunteers counted the electoral ballots. (active)
  • The flowers were stepped on by the dog. (passive)
    The dog stepped on the flowers. (active)

Active Voice Adds Impact to Your Writing

The active voice adds substantial impact to your sentence; however, you may sometimes want to use the passive voice to lessen the impact of your sentence.

  • Sometimes the active voice is used to deliberately obscure who is responsible for an action, like if a politician said, “Mistakes were made” or “Shots were fired.”
  • Businesses may use the passive voice to lessen their impact like “Your service will be shut off” which is passive, rather than “We are going to shut off your service.” which is active.
  • In crime reports, a policeman would write, “the bank was robbed” because he does not know who actually robbed the bank.
  • In a mystery novel, you may want to place the emphasis on what was taken, like “the jewels were taken” rather than focus on the unknown person who took them.

In most English sentences with an action verb, the subject performs the action denoted by the verb. These examples show that the subject is doing the verb’s action:

The boy must have eaten all of the hot dogs.

            The boy (subject) is doing the eating (verb).

Jennifer mailed him the love letter.

            Jennifer (subject) is doing the mailing (verb).

Colorful iguanas live in the Amazon rainforest.

            Iguanas (subject) are doing the living (verb).

Because the subject does or “acts upon” the verb in such sentences, the sentences are said to be in the active voice. As you go through an individual essay, article, or paper, please be sure to check that you are primarily using the active voice. The passive voice definitely has its place but if you are especially trying to be persuasive, make a congruent argument, or back up your hypothesis, then you should mainly be using the active voice in those types of writing. 

If you find that the ‘subject’ of your sentence is clearly not at the beginning and your action / object is taking its place, then your sentence is not an active one by a passive one instead. The active voice always places the subject within the first word or two at the beginning of the sentence so that the reader will be well aware of who is committing the action. Please keep in mind how to use the active voice in terms of the sentence structure, what the examples show above, and in which types of writing the active voice is mainly used. If you would like to take your English writing to the next level, you must first know what the active voice is and in a later ‘English Corner’ post, the passive voice will be discussed in terms of its usage and some examples.

Lastly, think of the ‘active voice’ and the ‘passive voice’ as the Yin and the Yang of English writing. Both have their separate and unique uses but you can’t only have one in your writing. You must be able to know how to use both because there cannot be one without the other.