Active and Passive Voice
You may have heard your teachers toss around the terms 'passive voice' and 'active voice'. But if you've never really understood what it means to write actively or passively, stick with us -- and learn how to turn to awkward passive sentences into bright, active ones.
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What are Active and Passive Voice in Writing?
Everyone has that friend. You know, the one who’s always passive aggressive and never seems to come out and just tell you what he or she means? The roommate who wanders around the kitchen wondering aloud where all of her milk went when you and she are the only people in the room, and you wish she would just ask you directly if you were the one who used all her milk without asking?
In English, a sentence written using passive voice is that annoying, ambiguous friend. In passive voice, instead of an agent performing an action - as in active voice - the action happens (often mysteriously) to the agent. Don’t get what I’m saying? Take this scenario at the climax of this little-known film:
‘The Emperor was thrown down a ventilation shaft by Luke’s dad.’
This is a classic example of a sentence in the passive voice. Can you see why? First, ask yourself:
What is the action in the sentence?
The action here is ‘was thrown’, or the verb to throw. Then, single out who is being acted upon. In this case, who was thrown? ‘The Emperor.’
Next, ask: Is someone or something performing the action?
Who was doing the throwing in this sentence? It’s ‘Luke’s dad.’
Now that you’ve identified the key elements, you can make the sentence active by putting the person performing the action (the subject) - ‘Luke’s dad’ - at the front of the sentence.
So, ‘The Emperor was thrown down the ventilation shaft by Luke’s dad’ becomes ‘Luke’s dad threw the Emperor down the ventilation shaft.’
The sentence is not only shorter and clearer, but more direct. Now the only thing you have to answer is why there’s a giant, death-defying hole in the middle of the throne room.
Why Active, Not Passive?
At some point in your schooling, a teacher or three probably told you that passive voice was wrong and that active voice was good. This is not entirely true, but for reasons of style and clarity, active voice is often preferable to passive voice. It make sentences more immediate and engaging. Despite this, many people often write passively by default, as it feels more natural or academic to them. (There’s a good reason for this: Many scholars aren’t very good writers, even if they are, say, brilliant thinkers.)
We can imagine, for instance, a committee of well-meaning scholars yielding this rather dry pronouncement:
‘A large asteroid heading towards Earth has been discovered by the scientific group.’
The sentence contains some pretty important information, but this sentence, because it’s passive, doesn’t put the important information to the forefront. It also lacks immediacy. So how do we fix this?
Identifying and Correcting Passive Voice
All sentences in passive voice contain two elements: A form of the verb ‘to be’ (those are: is, are, am, was, were, has been, have been, had been, will be, will have been and being) plus a past participle, which is a verb in the past tense.
In the asteroid example, the ‘to be’ verb is ‘has been’ and the past participle is ‘discovered.’ The direct object that has been found is the ‘asteroid.’ Hence, the sentence is in passive voice. Note: sentences without a direct object - that’s the agent that the subject and verb affect - are never in passive voice.
Another simpler clue in this sentence that it’s in passive voice is the preposition ‘by.’ If you see ‘by’, there’s a strong chance that the sentence is in passive voice. However, ‘A large asteroid heading towards Earth has been discovered by the scientific group’ could just as easily be ‘A large asteroid heading towards Earth has been discovered,’ and it would still be a passive sentence without that preposition in there. So, it’s a good clue but it’s not the be-all-end-all of figuring out if a sentence is in the passive voice. Here’s a good rule of thumb: If ‘by’ isn’t in the sentence and you can’t tell who’s performing the action, the sentence is probably passive.
To avoid Armageddon without the help of Bruce Willis, place the doers of the action at the front of the sentence and remove the ‘to be’ verb. So the sentence becomes
‘The scientific group discovered a large asteroid heading towards Earth.’
And the world is saved by good style.
It’s a pretty common belief that sentences in the first person, I or we, can’t be passive. After all, if I’m doing it, it can’t be unclear who’s performing the action, right? It’s easy to fall into this trap, but first person perspective is not an escape from passive voice.
For instance, ‘I was stranded on the island by the storm’ is passive. You’re not stranding yourself on the island. The storm is performing the action of stranding you. To make it active, change it to:
‘The storm stranded me on the island.’
To identify whether a sentence is in passive or active voice, first ask yourself
1. What is the action in the sentence?
2. Who or what is performing the action?
Next, see if the preposition ‘by’ is in the sentence and where. Then, look for a ‘to be’ verb and the past participle pairing. Then, once you’ve determined the sentence is passive (if it’s active, leave it alone),
1. Place the ‘doer’ of the action in front
2. Remove the ‘to be’ verb , and
3. Change the main verb if necessary.
Now you’ve turned a dull, boring, passive sentence into smooth, stylish, active one!
After watching this lesson, you should be able to:
Explain why active voice is usually better than passive
Identify passive sentences and understand how to make them active
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