Voice is a nebulous term in writing. It can refer to the general “feel” of the writing, or it can be used in a more technical sense. In this section, we will focus on the latter sense as we discuss active and passive voice.
You’ve probably heard of the passive voice—perhaps in a comment from an English teacher or in the grammar checker of a word processor. In both of these instances, you were (likely) guided away from the passive voice. Why is this the case? Why is the passive voice so hated? After all, it’s been used twice on this page already (three times now). When the passive voice is used to frequently, it can make your writing seem flat and drab. However, there are some instances where the passive voice is a better choice than the active.
So just what is the difference between these two voices? In the simplest terms, an active voice sentence is written in the form of “A does B.” (For example, “Carmen sings the song.”) A passive voice sentence is written in the form of “B is done by A.” (For example, “The song is sung by Carmen.”) Both constructions are grammatically sound and correct.
Let’s look at a couple more examples of the passive voice:
- I’ve been hit! (or, I have been hit!)
- Jasper was thrown from the car when it was struck from behind.
You may have noticed something unique about the previous two sentences: the subject of the sentence is not the person (or thing) performing the action. The passive voice “hides” who does the action. Despite these sentences being completely grammatically sound, we don’t know who hit “me” or what struck the car.
The passive is created using the verb to be (e.g., the song is sung; it was struck from behind). Remember that to be conjugates irregularly. Its forms include am, are, is, was, were, and will be, which we learned about earlier in the course.
Remember, to be also has more complex forms like had been, is being, and was being.
- Mirella is being pulled away from everything she loves.
- Pietro had been pushed; I knew it.
- Unfortunately, my car was being towed away by the time I got to it.
Because to be has other uses than just creating the passive voice, we need to be careful when we identify passive sentences. It’s easy to mistake a sentence like “She was falling.” or “He is short.” for a passive sentence. However, in “She was falling,” was simply indicates that the sentence takes place in the past. In “He is short,” is is a linking verb. If there is no “real” action taking place, is is simply acting as a linking verb.
There are two key features that will help you identify a passive sentence:
- Something is happening (the sentence has a verb that is not a linking verb).
- The subject of the sentence is not doing that thing.
As you read at the two sentences below, think about the how the different voice may affect the meaning or implications of the sentence:
- Passive voice: The rate of evaporation is controlled by the size of an opening.
- Active voice: The size of an opening controls the rate of evaporation.
The passive choice slightly emphasizes “the rate of evaporation,” while the active choice emphasizes “the size of an opening.” Simple. So why all the fuss? Because passive constructions can produce grammatically tangled sentences such as this:
Groundwater flow is influenced by zones of fracture concentration, as can be recognized by the two model simulations (see Figures 1 and 2), by which one can see . . .
The sentence is becoming a burden for the reader, and probably for the writer too. As often happens, the passive voice here has smothered potential verbs and kicked off a runaway train of prepositions. But the reader’s task gets much easier in the revised version below:
Two model simulations (Figures 1 and 2) illustrate how zones of fracture concentration influence groundwater flow. These simulations show . . .
To revise the above, all I did was look for the two buried things (simulations and zones) in the original version that could actually do something, and I made the sentence clearly about these two nouns by placing them in front of active verbs. This is the general principle to follow as you compose in the active voice: Place concrete nouns that can perform work in front of active verbs.
Are the following sentences in the active or passive voice?
- Jayden drank more sodas than anyone else at the party.
- The samples were prepared in a clean room before being sent out for further examination.
- Karen was dancing with Joshua when she suddenly realized she needed to leave.
- Carlos was a very serious scientist with unique interests.
- When I returned to my room, my luggage had been stolen.
- This sentence uses the active voice. Jayden does the action (drank) to the object (more sodas). If this sentence were written in the passive it would read “More sodas were drunk by Jayden than by anyone else at the party.”
- This sentence uses the passive voice. The action (prepared) was done to the subject of the sentence (samples). If this sentence were written in the active it would be something like this: “[Actor] prepared the samples in a clean room before sending them out for further examination.” Since we do not know who prepared the samples, the active sentence is incomplete.
- This sentence uses the active voice. In this case was indicates that the sentence happened in the past; it does not indicate the passive voice in this instance.
- This sentence uses the active voice. In this case was is acting as a linking verb. It links Carlos with the phrase very serious scientist.
- The introductory phrase to the sentence (When I returned to my room) is in the active voice. The second phrase (my luggage had been stolen) uses the passive voice.