Verbs are either active or passive in voice. In the active voice, the subject and verb relationship is straightforward: the subject is a do-er. In the passive voice, the subject of the sentence is not a do-er. It is shown with by + do-er or is not shown in the sentence.
Passive voice is used when the action is the focus, not the subject. It is not important (or not known) who does the action.
- The window is broken. (It is not known who broke the window, or it is not important to know who broke the window.)
- The class has been canceled. (The focus is on the class being canceled. It is not important to know who canceled it.)
- The passive voice is often used. (The focus is on the passive voice. It is not important to explain who the writer is.)
Passive voice should be avoided when you want more clarity in writing. However, in some cases, you need to use passive voice to stress the action, not the actor. Also, passive voice can be considered more polite, as it sounds less aggressive or dramatic.
- That building was built in 1990.
- The car was invented about a hundred years ago.
- I was told that Mary moved to a different country.
- Your business is appreciated.
- She was elected to city council.
- It was rumored that the company would lay off a few people soon.
- It is recommended that the billing process be shortened.
You can easily rewrite an active sentence to a passive sentence. The object in the active sentence becomes a subject in the passive sentence. The verb is changed to a “be” verb + past participle. The subject of the active sentence follows by or is omitted.
- Sam wrote a letter to Jamie.
- A letter was written to Jamie by Sam.
- The government built a new bridge.
- A new bridge was built by the government
- I recommend that you apply for this position.
- It is recommended that you apply for this position.
Reasons to Generally Avoid Passive Voice
Sometimes the use of passive voice can create awkward sentences as in this example:
The entrance exam was failed by over one-third of the applicant to the school.
Also, overuse of passive voice throughout an essay can cause your prose to seem flat and uninteresting. In scientific writing, however, passive voice is more readily accepted since using it allows one to write without using personal pronouns or the name of particular researchers as the subjects of sentences making the writing have a more objective tone.
Use active voice if you want more clarity in your writing, especially in expository, informational, or persuasive writing.
Recognizing Passive Voice
Passive voice expression will always include a form of be, such as am, is, was, were, are, or been. This is not a fool-proof method of identifying a passive sentence, but it is helpful. Another way to recognize passive-voice sentences is that they may include a “by the…” phrase after the verb so that the agent performing the action, if named, is the object of the preposition in this phrase.
Crafting Sentences in Active Voice
In a sentence using active voice, the subject of the sentence performs the action expressed in the verb.
- ACTIVE The dog bit the boy
PASSIVE The boy was bitten by the dog.
- ACTIVE Scientists have conducted experiments to test their hypotheses.
- PASSIVE Experiments to test their hypotheses have been conducted by scientists.