8.6 Active vs. Passive Voice

English verbs have two voices—active and passive. New writers often use the passive voice because they think it sounds more professional. However, passive voice, instead of making a paper sound more professional, actually makes the writing unclear, hard to follow, and, at times, even boring. Good writing keeps passive voice to a minimum and uses active voice whenever possible.

Active Voice

Active voice occurs when the subject of the sentence performs the action of the sentence. The person or object performing an action is called the agent. In technical writing, it is almost always preferable to put the subject at the front of the sentence, followed by an active verb. Subject-verb constructed sentences are the clearest and most effective way to communicate information.

EXAMPLE:

      • Active:          The dog bit the man.
      • Active:          Jackie’s mother gave her a gift.

Passive Voice

Passive voice occurs when the subject is the recipient of the action.

EXAMPLE:

      • Passive:        The man was bitten by the dog.
      • Passive:        Jackie was given a gift by her mother.

Passive voice also occurs when the agent is missing or left off. For example, consider the following sentence: “Mistakes were made.” This sentence is problematical (and potentially unethical—see previous chapter on ethics) because it leaves out who made the mistakes, thereby deflecting blame and accountability. It essentially shifts the reader’s focus to what happened rather than who or what did it, which in certain situations may work to your advantage.

EXAMPLE

      • Passive:  The office was ransacked. and files were stolen (doesn’t specify who or what ransacked it—either because it is unknown or because the writer has chosen to put the focus of the sentence on the office being ransacked rather than who ransacked it).

Changing Passive Voice to Active Voice

    1. Identify the passive verb: find the “to be” verb (am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been). Also, you can look for any ‘by the’ phrases (something was done by someone).

EXAMPLE

      • Fred was [to be verb] selected by his peers to serve on the student council.
      • Linda was [to be verb] fired [past participle] by Mr. Richardson.
    1. Locate the agent who/that performs the action.

EXAMPLE

      • Fred was selected by his peers to serve on the student council.
      • Linda was fired by Mr. Richardson.
    1. Put the agent or doer in at the beginning of the sentence followed by the verb (rearrange the sentence, in other words)

EXAMPLE:

      • Fred’s peers selected him to serve on the student council.
      • Mr. Richardson fired Linda.

When to Use Passive Voice

Not every passive verb can or should be made active. Sometimes you simply don’t know who or what performed an action (news stories often use passive voice sentences), or you deliberately want to leave out who or what performed an action because it’s obvious or unimportant. Other times you might want to emphasize the recipient, so you would put it at the front in the sentence where it gets the most attention.

      • Tracy was featured on the TV nightly news. (the focus is on Tracy, not the TV nightly news).
      • Ten people were killed in the plane crash (the focus is on the ten people killed, even though the plane crash is the subject).

The passive is also used in many expressions where the writer chooses to be vague about assigning responsibility or when the agent is obvious.

      • Flight 107 has been cancelled. (agent is obvious or unimportant)
      • The check was lost in the mail. (agent who lost the letter is unknown)
      • An experimental liver transplant surgery was completed yesterday. (agent is obvious—liver transplant surgeries are typically performed by surgeons. )

When you need to use the passive voice, use it. Most of the time, however, you can improve a sentence by changing it from passive to active voice.

For more information, watch the following video “Active vs Passive Voice in Your Writing,” from GCFLearnFree.com:

Exercise: Changing Passive Voice to Active

In Table 8.6, convert the following passive voice construction to active voice (for example, “James was chosen by Kathy to be her assistant” would become “Kathy chose James to be her assistant”):

TABLE 8.6
PASSIVE VOICE ACTIVE VOICE REVISION
1. This awful mess was made by your friends. 1.
2. Everyone in need is helped by Michael. 2.
3. You will be made well by this medicine! 3.
4. Many inventions were created by Edison. 4.
5. The article was written by my friend. 5.
6. Many fine sites are hosted by Software Workshop. 6.
7.  Claudia was enraged by Richard’s sarcastic comments. 7.
8. Mistakes were made by the politicians. 8.
9. The reports had been completed by the students. 9.
10. Revisions are being made by the team. 10.

Additional Resources

*This page borrows from the following source:  
"Active vs Passive Voice in Your Writing." GCFLearnFree.com. Source link.

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