Active and Passive Voice
We don’t spend too much time on grammatical issues in this course, but this lesson is an exception. Knowing the difference between the active and passive voice of verbs is more than just grammar. It’s fundamental to good writing.
To prove the point, read the two sentences below and pick your preference:
A. An A was received by Ted on his paper.
B. Ted received an A on his paper.
You prefer B, right? Why? What’s the difference? Both sentences communicate the same information, but B says it more directly and more concisely. A is awkward and unwieldy. The difference has to do with the voice of the verb. The verb in A is passive. The verb in B is active.
To determine the voice of a verb, you must understand its relationship to its subject.* In the active voice, the subject performs the action of the verb:
Scott wallpapered the kitchen.
The verb here is wallpapered, and its subject is Scott. The question is — who is doing the wallpapering? It’s Scott, so this verb is in the active voice. Now check out this sentence:
The billboard was read by millions of pedestrians.
Here, the verb is was read, and the subject is billboard. Does the billboard perform the action of this sentence? No. It has the action done to it. In other words, billboard, the subject, doesn’t do anything. It gets read by millions. This means the verb is passive. In the passive voice, the subject receives the action of the verb.
Notice that passive verbs always need a helping verb. Of course, active verbs can have helping verbs too, but usually passive constructions require more words than active ones. That’s part of the problem — if we want conciseness, we use the active voice to be economical with words.
The basic rule is to write in the active voice almost all the time. Papers with lots of passive verbs sound clumsy and stiff. Active verbs move the action along. Check out these two examples:
As the busy street was crossed by me, I was nearly crushed by speeding cars and trucks. An accident was barely avoided, however, due to my quick reflexes. Still, horns were honked and profanities were hurled by angry drivers. Obviously, the state of my emergency was not known to them.
As I crossed the busy street, speeding cars and trucks nearly crushed me. I barely avoided an accident, however, due to my quick reflexes. Still, angry drivers honked their horns and hurled profanities. Obviously, they didn’t know the state of my emergency.
There are times, however, when the passive voice is the better option. Use the passive voice, for example, when seeking to create sympathy for the subject of the sentence or to emphasize the subject’s inactivity.
My grandmother’s purse was stolen by a mugger.
This is a better option than,
A mugger stole my grandmother’s purse.
The first sentence emphasizes your poor grandmother’s plight. The second gives more attention to the dirty rotten mugger.
With practice, you’ll learn when using the passive voice is necessary to avoid confusion or to place the emphasis correctly. In general, however, stick to the active voice.
*A tip for finding the subject of a verb is to ask who or what before the verb. The answer will usually be the subject. For example, take the sentence, The sniper crawls through the grass.
Ask, who crawls? The answer is sniper, so that is the subject of the verb crawls.