Passive and Active Voices

Definition

You will employ active or passive voice in your writing to place emphasis on the do-er of the action (the subject) or on what is being done (the object/action itself) respectively. In most cases, active voice is preferred in academic and professional writing, as it presents information to the reader in Subject-Verb-Object order, which is easy for the reader to interpret. However, there are times when passive voice is more appropriate.

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Active Voice

In the active voice, the subject and verb relationship is straightforward: the subject is a be-er or a do-er and the verb moves the sentence along. Consider the example below:

  • The executive committee approved the new policy.

Here, the subject (executive committee) appears before the verb (approved). The same is true for the examples below:

  • The private investigator completed her additional training.
  • Janine considered the exam extraordinarily difficult.

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Passive Voice

In the passive voice, the subject of the sentence is neither a do-er or a be-er, but is acted upon by some other agent or by something unnamed. Example:

  • The new policy was approved by the executive committee.
  • The additional training was completed by the private investigator
  • The exam was considered extraordinarily difficult by Janine.

Computerized grammar checkers can pick out a passive voice construction and ask you to revise it to a more active construction. There is nothing inherently wrong with the passive voice, but if you can say the same thing in the active mode, do so (see exceptions below).

Passive voice is frequently used to avoid responsibility, as the subject or do-er is either not named or de-emphasized. At a Parliamentary press briefing we might hear that “The Prime Minister was advised that certain members were being audited,” rather than, “The Head of the Internal Revenue service advised the Prime Minister that her agency was auditing certain members,” because the passive construction avoids responsibility for advising and for auditing.

One further caution about the passive voice: we should not mix active and passive constructions in the same sentence: “The executive committee approved the new policy, and the calendar for next year’s meetings was revised” should be recast as “The executive committee approved the new policy and revised the calendar for next year’s meeting.”

The passive voice does exist for a reason, however, and its presence is not always to be despised. The passive is particularly useful (even recommended) in two situations:

  • When it is more important to draw our attention to the person or thing acted upon: The unidentified victim was apparently struck during the early morning hours.
  • When the actor in the situation is not important: The aurora borealis can be observed in the early morning hours.

The passive voice is especially helpful (and even regarded as mandatory) in scientific or technical writing or lab reports, where the actor is not really important but the process or principle being described is of ultimate importance. Instead of writing “I poured 20 cc of acid into the beaker,” we would write “Twenty cc of acid was poured into the beaker.” The passive voice is also useful when describing, say, a mechanical process in which the details of process are much more important than anyone’s taking responsibility for the action: “The first coat of primer paint is applied immediately after the acid rinse.”

We use the passive voice to good effect in a paragraph in which we wish to shift emphasis from what was the object in a first sentence to what becomes the subject in subsequent sentences. For example:

  • The executive committee approved an entirely new policy for dealing with academic suspension and withdrawal. The policy had been written by a subcommittee on student behavior. If students withdraw from course work before suspension can take effect, the policy states, a mark of “IW” . . . .

The paragraph is clearly about this new policy so it is appropriate that policy moves from being the object in the first sentence to being the subject of the second sentence. The passive voice allows for this transition.*

* From Understanding English Grammar by Martha Kolln. 4rth Edition. MacMillan Publishing Company: New York. 1994. 359.

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Verb Formation

The passive forms of a verb are created by combining a form of the to be verb with the past participle of the main verb. Consider the example below:

  • The turkey was eaten by the family.

Was is a form of the verb to be, and eaten is the past participle of the verb to eat.

Other helping verbs are also sometimes present: “The measure could have been killed in committee.”

A sentence cast in the passive voice will not always include an agent of the action. For instance if a gorilla crushes a tin can, we could say, “The tin can was crushed by the gorilla.” However, a perfectly good sentence would leave out the gorilla: “The tin can was crushed.” Also, when an active sentence with an indirect object is recast in the passive, the indirect object can take on the role of subject in the passive sentence:

Active

Professor Villa gave Jorge an A.

Passive

An A was given to Jorge by Professor Villa.

Passive

Jorge was given an A.

Only transitive verbs (those that take objects) can be transformed into passive constructions. Furthermore, active sentences containing certain verbs cannot be transformed into passive structures. To have is the most important of these verbs. We can say “He has a new car,” but we cannot say “A new car is had by him.” We can say “Josefina lacked finesse,” but we cannot say “Finesse was lacked.”

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Passive Structures

Verbals or verb forms can also take on features of the passive voice. An infinitive phrase in the passive voice, for instance, can perform various functions within a sentence (just like the active forms of the infinitive).

Subject

To be elected by my peers is a great honor.

Object

That child really likes to be read to by her mother.

Modifier

Grasso was the first woman to be elected governor in her own right.

The same is true of passive gerunds.

Subject

Being elected by my peers was a great thrill.

Object

I really don’t like being lectured to by my boss.

Object

I am so tired of being lectured to by my boss.

With passive participles, part of the passive construction is often omitted, the result being a simple modifying participial phrase.

  • [Having been] designed for off-road performance, the Pathseeker does not always behave well on paved highways.

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Exercises

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