Active and Passive Voice Explained

All too often, I work with students whose professors tell them, “Don’t use passive voice!”  During these particular consultations, I soon discover that most students have no idea how to distinguish between active and passive voice.  As a result, they can’t identify when they’re using passive voice, let alone figure out how to revise their sentences using active voice. So, let me try to address this problem right now.

When a sentence is active, the subject is the doer of the action.

Let’s take a look at some examples of active voice.

  • Sally (subject) reads (action) books (direct object) .
  • Max (subject) parked (action) his car (direct object)  near the library.
  • The students (subject) used (action) the computer (direct object) for the presentation.

When a sentence is passive, the subject is the receiver of the action, and the direct object is foregrounded in the sentence.

Now, let’s use those previous examples to write some sentences in passive voice.

  • Books (direct object) are read (action) by Sally (subject).
  • The car (direct object) was parked (action) near the library by Max (subject).
  • The computer (direct object) was used (action) by the students (subject) for the presentation.

So, is passive voice wrong?  Grammatically speaking, passive voice is not wrong.  However, passive voice is usually not the best way for you to express your thoughts.  Why? Well, passive voice tends to create awkward and unclear sentences. For instance, I think we can all agree that the sentence, “Sally reads books,” is much clearer than “Books are read by Sally.”  If your professor tells you that your paper is “too wordy” or needs to be “more concise,” the problem may be that you’re using passive voice instead of active voice.

Furthermore, passive voice becomes a problem when you forget to mention who or what is performing the action.  For example, the sentence, “The car was parked near the library by Max,” can easily turn into “The car was parked near the library.”  If you use the latter sentence, then your reader is probably going to ask, “Who parked the car?” You can avoid this problem altogether by writing the sentence in active voice.  To do this, make sure your subject – in this case, Max – is performing the action. When written in active voice, the sentence, “The car was parked near the library by Max,” becomes “Max parked the car near the library.”

To give another example, let’s say I’m writing a literary analysis on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and I decide to argue that marriage is a prominent theme throughout the novel.  In my first body paragraph, I write, “Both Mr. Collins and Mr. Darcy propose to Elizabeth Bennet.  By the end of the novel, Elizabeth is married.” What’s the problem here? As the reader, you’re not sure who Elizabeth marries – does she marry Mr. Collins or Mr. Darcy?  When writing papers, such as literary analyses, it’s usually a good idea to avoid using passive voice. Instead, you want to be explicit about who is performing the action in the sentence.  In my Pride and Prejudice book analysis, I should be clear and say, “Both Mr. Collins and Mr. Darcy propose to Elizabeth Bennet.  At the end of the novel, Elizabeth marries Mr. Darcy.”

At this point, you’re probably thinking that passive voice is off limits, and you should never use it again. I’m here to tell you can use passive voice, but it’s important for you to make rhetorical choices about when to do so.  In other words, passive voice is a useful writing device as long as you use it appropriately.  With that, let’s discuss three instances when it is perfectly acceptable to use passive voice.

  • Unknown Actor.  You can use passive voice if the performer of the action is unknown.  If I’m writing a paper on the history of Stonehenge, I might say, “According to archaeologists, Stonehenge was constructed between 3100 and 2800 B.C.”  In this case, it is acceptable to use passive voice because no one actually knows who built Stonehenge.
  • Scientific Genre.  When writing a lab report or scientific paper, it’s acceptable to use passive voice because the actor is usually irrelevant or unimportant.  Furthermore, passive voice helps science writing to sound more objective.  So, in a lab report, I might write, “Water was added to the solution in the test tube.”
  • Avoiding Responsibility.  You can also use passive voice if you want to be vague about who is responsible for performing an action.  For example, in reference to the Iran-Contra scandal, Ronald Reagan famously said, “Mistakes were made.” Who made these mistakes?  Was it you? The U.S.? Someone else? As you can see, this phrase comes in handy when you’re trying to deflect blame. So, it’s no wonder that subsequent U.S. presidents have often borrowed it.

Now, let’s discuss a strategy to help you recognize passive voice in your writing.

When you’re trying to identity passive voice, look for sentences that contain a form of “to be” followed by a past participle.  

Forms of “to be” include: is, are, am, was, were, has been, have been, had been, will be, will have been, and being.  And, a past participle is a verb form that typically ends in “-ed.”  For example, the sentence, “The dog has been trained,” uses passive voice because “has been” is a form of “to be” and “trained” is a past participle. You may also notice that the subject of the sentence – who trained the dog – is not included.

However, keep in mind that there are two exceptions to these rules.  First, not every past participle ends in “-ed.” For instance, the past participle of the verb “eat” is “eaten,” not “eated.”  Likewise, the past participle of the verb “drive” is “driven,” not “drived.” Second, not every use of the verb “to be” indicates passive voice.  Let’s use the sentence, “Henry has been feeling unwell,” as an example. The former sentence uses active voice – not passive voice – because Henry is performing the action, and there is no past participle.

While keeping this strategy in mind, let’s take a look at the following paragraph:

Off camera, the blank, white canvas is covered in a thin layer of liquid white.  This first step is important because a surface is created to help the colors blend. Then, Indian yellow, yellow ochre, and bright red are used to create the sunset.  When bright red is used, viewers are warned to be careful because it is a strong, opaque color. Then, phthalo blue and alizarin crimson are mixed to create a lavender color for the sky. After the lavender color is used, the brush is washed and the devil is beaten out of it.  The clean brush is then used to blend the colors on the canvas. Large clouds are painted into the sky using a fan brush. After the painting is blended again and details are added, mountains are created using a painting knife. Eventually, black, Prussian blue, Vandyke brown, and crimson are mixed, and the mixture is used to create lots of happy, little trees throughout the painting. Finally, different shades of yellow are mixed with sap green and black to create a dark green, which is used to paint the grass.

What do you notice about this paragraph?  First of all, you have no idea who is performing the actions.

Recently, I’ve been obsessed with watching old episodes of Bob Ross’ The Joy of Painting on YouTube. I used “Sunset Aglow” (Season 26, Episode 12) to construct this paragraph.  If you’re familiar with Bob Ross, then you may have guessed that this paragraph is a summary of an episode.  For those of you unfamiliar with Bob Ross, you probably asked yourself, “What’s going on? Who is beating the devil out of paintbrushes and painting happy, little trees?”  These questions are good questions, and I don’t blame you for asking them.

If you haven’t already guessed, the problem with the former paragraph is that it’s written entirely in passive voice.  You can tell because there are several unnecessary uses of the verb “to be” which are followed by past participles. To be exact, this paragraph uses “to be” twenty-one times!  And, there are only three instances when “to be” does not precede a past participle. In addition to overusing “to be,” I think we can all agree that this paragraph is a bit too wordy.  So, let’s try to fix this problem by rewriting the paragraph in active voice:

Off camera, Bob Ross covers the blank, white canvas in liquid white.  This first step is important because it creates a surface to help the colors blend. Then, Bob Ross uses Indian yellow, yellow ochre, and bright red to create the sunset.  When using bright red, he warns viewers to be careful because it is a strong, opaque color. Then, Bob Ross mixes phthalo blue and alizarin crimson to create a lavender color for the sky.  After he uses the lavender color, Bob Ross washes his brush and beats the devil out of it. He then uses the clean brush to blend the colors on the canvas. Using a fan brush, Bob Ross paints large clouds into the sky.  After he blends the painting again and adds some details, he uses a painting knife to create mountains. Eventually, he mixes black, Prussian blue, Vandyke brown, and crimson and uses the mixture to create lots of happy, little trees throughout the painting.  Lastly, Bob Ross mixes different shades of yellow with sap green and black to create a dark green, which he uses to create grass.

Unlike the original paragraph, this paragraph uses the verb “to be” only three times, and, each time, “to be” does not precede a past participle.  Although this paragraph contains almost the same number of words as the original paragraph, the sentences are clearer and more direct. This time, you know who is performing the actions.  Bob Ross is beating the devil out of paintbrushes and painting happy, little trees. He is performing the actions, not some unknown, mysterious individual.

In your writing, try to be as explicit and direct as possible because, ultimately, you want your readers to understand what you’re trying to say.  

Sometimes, passive voice can prevent you from making your points clear.  So, unless you have a good reason to use passive voice, try to avoid it in your writing.  Instead of painting happy, little trees, let’s all try to write some happy, little sentences in active voice!

Catherine Znamirowski is a graduate student in the Global Affairs and Human Security program and a writing center consultant.

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