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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
2. Do-er is unknown:
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:
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.
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!
More examples of passive voice:
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!
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!