Passive Voice vs. Active Voice: What You Need to Know


If you grew up attending American schools, at some point you probably received the advice to “write in the active voice.” Although English instructors tend to hold passive-voice statements in lesser esteem, many English speakers (including college graduates) still often use them. Others might even have trouble identifying them in sentences.

So what exactly is the passive voice, and does it really weaken our writing? Let’s explore those questions.

Active vs. Passive Voice

In broad terms, using the active voice means you have a subject that is performing an action, as in this sentence:

My cat chases mice.

The subject (the cat) is performing the action (chasing). It’s simple and direct. Here is another example:

Jennifer bakes cookies.

Again, we have a direct relationship between the subject and the verb. Jennifer is our subject and bakes is the action.

In a passive-voice sentence, the relationship between the subject and the verb becomes less direct. The subject no longer performs the action, as in:

The town was flooded by the hurricane.

In this sentence our subject (the town) becomes flooded, but not by its own activity. The passive construction makes the object a subject and the subject an object.

Is It Wrong to Use Passive Voice in Writing?

In some cases, the passive voice may be favorable mainly from the viewpoint of desired emphasis. For example, in the sentence the award was given to Joseph, perhaps we want more focus on the award than on Joseph (compare with Joseph received the award).

In other cases, however, the passive voice might be applied to shift attention from where it belongs. For example, someone working in public relations for a village might write a sentence such as the unpopular edict was passed by the village might soften how one receives the more-identifying news that the village passed the unpopular edict. 

Similarly, there may be contexts in which we use the passive voice because we do not know the actor behind the verb. For instance, in a sentence such as to the dismay of many, the debt was forgiven, the forgiver’s identity may not yet be established. 

As a matter of overall usage and style, passive-voice sentences generally make our expressions less resolute or even confusing. Using passive statements is acceptable and sometimes even necessary, but as a matter of intent, our writing should rely mainly on the active voice.

Pop Quiz

Applying what you now understand, specify whether each following sentence is written in the active voice or the passive voice.

  1. The thunder rattled the windows of my house.
  2. My taxi driver was ticketed by a police officer.
  3. Maria called the software company’s helpline.
  4. Advanced computers teach themselves algebra and languages.
  5. Our plane was tossed around by the thunderstorm.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

  1. The thunder rattled the windows of my house. Active Voice
  2. My taxi driver was ticketed by a police officer. Passive Voice
  3. Maria called the software company’s helpline. Active Voice
  4. Advanced computers teach themselves algebra and languages. Active Voice
  5. Our plane was tossed around by the thunderstorm. Passive Voice

 

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