Sometimes when I’m writing these blogs, Microsoft Word will underline a sentence in green, saying that it has been written in the passive voice, and that I should consider revising (changing, rewording) the sentence. This is because the passive voice is not as common (often found) in the English language because we tend to use the active voice more frequently. We were definitely told to do this in school!!
So what exactly is the difference between the active and passive voice in English?
Most sentences in English are in the active voice. The active voice is when the subject (the “do-er”) of a sentence is doing something, and the thing receiving the action is the object.
- Sarah (the do-er) sees the dog (the receiver).
A more straightforward way to think about this is that the active voice consists of “doing” verbs — words like run, eat, make, swim, etc., — and the verb is “happening” (being done to) the object of the sentence.
With active sentences, the “do-er” of the verb is clear and stated at the beginning of the sentence.
- John ate the sandwich.
- She’s waiting for him at the bus stop.
- I’m going swimming later.
- Want to check out that movie?
- I took these pictures in 2005.
With active sentences, the “do-er” is very important and we want to be sure that the reader knows who is doing the action.
Once you feel well acquainted with the active voice, it’s time to move on to the passive voice. The difference between the active and passive voice is subtle, but important…
The passive voice is less common in English, and unlike (not the same as) the active voice, it is used when a verb is happening to the subject of a sentence, rather than the subject/”do-er” doing the verb.
- Two fish were caught!
In this example, the fish didn’t do the catching, they were caught. The fish received the action of the verb, the fish didn’t do the verb.
The passive voice is used in one of three cases:
1. The “do-er” is clear or obvious.
2. The “do-er” is unknown.
3. The “do-er” doesn’t matter – it’s not the point of the subject.
1. Do-er is clear:
- If I show you pictures from my vacation, I can simply say, “This picture was taken at my hotel.” It would be clear to you that I took the pictures because it’s my photo album. You know I am the do-er.
2. Do-er is unknown:
- “The car was stolen last night around 20:30.”
The police report on the news states a fact, but they don’t know who has stolen the vehicle. This is the perfect opportunity for passive voice.
3. Do-er is not important for the context of the situation:
- “$50,000 has been donated to support the victims of the California fires since Thursday.”
We don’t need to know exactly who the donors are, as that is not important information for the point of this sentence.
The passive voice has a few words to look out for that indicate it is in the passive voice, such as “was” and “got”, and “by”.
You can also use the passive voice if you think the “receiver” should be emphasized in the sentence.
- The entire meal was cooked by yours truly!
We can also use the passive voice to be indirect when we don’t want to say who the do-er is, maybe to protect the do-er, or maybe because YOU are the do-er but you don’t’ want anyone to know!
- I have been informed (told) that we need to cut staff by 15%.
More examples of passive voice:
- The prisoner was caught by the police.
- The boy was picked up by his father after school.
- The Theory of Relativity was discovered by Einstein.
- Enough time was allowed for us to take the test.
- All lanes of traffic on the freeway were reopened by lunchtime.
- The package was delivered on time.
- She got rewarded for her hard work.
If you happen to be doing academic writing, it’s best to avoid the passive voice, as it can be vague about who exactly is doing the action in a sentence. Passive voice can also be used to hide shoddy (unclear, dodgy, questionable) research, so it’s best to use active sentences when possible in academic writing, or writing you have done research for.
Do you have any tricks to differentiate between the active and passive voice? Make sure to share them with us in the comments below!
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Erin Duffin lives in Hamburg, is an English teacher, blogger, yoga instructor, and is glad that adulthood has liberated her from the exclusive use of the active voice!