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Contributors:April Toadvine, Allen Brizee, Elizabeth Angeli.
Summary:

This handout will explain the difference between active and passive voice in writing. It gives examples of both, and shows how to turn a passive sentence into an active one. Also, it explains how to decide when to choose passive voice instead of active.

Active and Passive Voice

Using Active Versus Passive Voice

In a sentence using active voice, the subject of the sentence performs the action expressed in the verb.

The sentence, the dog bit the boy, includes a subject (the dog) who performs the action expressed in the verb (biting the boy).

Image Caption: The arrow points from the subject performing the action (the dog) to the individual being acted upon (the boy). This is an example of a sentence using the active voice.

The active voice sentence, scientists have conducted experiments to test the hypothesis, includes the scientists (the sentence subject) performing the action.

Image Caption: Sample active voice sentence with the subject performing the action described by the verb.

The subject of the sentence is performing the action described by the verb in this active voice sentence, watching a framed, mobile world through a car's windshield reminds me of watching a movie or TV.

Image Caption: The active voice sentence subject (watching a framed, mobile world) performs the action of reminding the speaker of something.

Each example above includes a sentence subject performing the action expressed by the verb.

View examples of verb tenses active voice. 

Contributors:April Toadvine, Allen Brizee, Elizabeth Angeli.
Summary:

This handout will explain the difference between active and passive voice in writing. It gives examples of both, and shows how to turn a passive sentence into an active one. Also, it explains how to decide when to choose passive voice instead of active.

Active Versus Passive Voice

Active voice is used for most non-scientific writing. Using active voice for the majority of your sentences makes your meaning clear for readers, and keeps the sentences from becoming too complicated or wordy. Even in scientific writing, too much use of passive voice can cloud the meaning of your sentences.

The passive (indirect) sentence, the entrance exam was failed by over one-third of the applicants to the school, includes an action performed upon the sentence subject (the entrance exam).

Image Caption: The action is performed upon the sentence subject, meaning this sentence is passive (indirect).

The active voice sentence subjects perform the action in the sentence, over one-third of the applicants to the school failed the entrance exam.

Image Caption: This is an example of the active voice because the sentence subject performs the action.

The subject (the brakes) is being acted upon by another individual (her) in the sentence, the brakes were slammed on by her as the car sped downhill.

Image Caption: This is an example of the passive voice.

The subject of this active voice sentence (she) performs the action in the statement, she slammed on the brakes as the car sped downhill.

Image Caption: This is an example of an active voice sentence because the sentence subject performs the action.

The bicycle is the subject of the action performed by the agent, who is omitted, in this passive voice sentence (your bicycle has been damaged).

Image Caption: This is an example of the passive voice.

The active voice sentence subject performs the action in this sentence, I have damaged your bicycle.

Image Caption: This is an example of an active voice sentence because its subject performs the action expressed in the verb.

Sentences in active voice are also more concise than those in passive voice because fewer words are required to express action in active voice than in passive.

This passive voice sentence (action on the bill is being considered by the committee) requires more words to communicate the idea that the committee is considering action on the bill.

Image Caption: This passive voice sentence is less concise than its active voice counterpart (shown below).

This active voice sentence (the committee is considering action on the bill) is more concise than the passive voice version (above).

Image Caption: This active voice sentence requires fewer words to communicate the same idea as the passive voice version (above).

This sentence (By then, the soundtrack will have been completely remixed by the sound engineers) is more wordy than an active voice sentence because the sentence subject does not directly perform the action described by the verb.

Image Caption: This passive voice sentence is more wordy than an active voice version.

This sentence (by then, the sound engineers will have completely remixed the soundtrack) uses the active voice and is more concise than a passive voice version because the subject directly performs the action.

Image Caption: This active voice sentence is more concise than the passive voice version (above) because the subject directly performs the action.

Contributors:April Toadvine, Allen Brizee, Elizabeth Angeli.
Summary:

This handout will explain the difference between active and passive voice in writing. It gives examples of both, and shows how to turn a passive sentence into an active one. Also, it explains how to decide when to choose passive voice instead of active.

More about Passive Voice

In a sentence using passive voice, the subject is acted upon; he or she receives the action expressed by the verb. The agent performing the action may appear in a "by the..." phrase or may be omitted.

The sentence, the boy was bitten by the dog, shows the subject (the boy) is being acted upon by something or someone else (the dog). This is an example of a sentence using the passive voice.

Image Caption: The dog is acting upon the sentence subject (the boy), meaning it uses the passive voice.

The sentence subject (research) is being acted upon (presented) by another person (Pooja) in the sentence, research will be presented by Pooja at the conference. So, this sentence uses the passive voice.

Image Caption: This example sentence includes the passive voice because the subject (research) is being acted upon (presented) by another person (Pooja).

The sentence, the entrance exam was failed by over one-third of the applicants to the school, uses the passive voice because the subject (the entrance exam) is being acted upon (failed) by other people (over one-third of the applicants).

Image Caption: This is an example of the passive voice.

The sentence, I am reminded of watching a movie or TV by watching a framed, mobile world through a car's windshield, uses the passive voice since the subject (I) is acted upon by another sentence element (watching a framed, mobile world).

Image Caption: The subject of the passive voice sentence performs the action expressed in the verb in this example.

The sentence, the entrance exam was failed by over one-third of the applicants to the school, uses the passive voice because the subject (the entrance exam) is being acted upon (failed) by other people (over one-third of the applicants).

Image Caption: This is an example of the passive voice.

Reasons to Generally Avoid Passive Voice

Sometimes the use of passive voice can create awkward sentences, as in the last example above. Also, overuse of passive voice throughout an essay can cause your prose to seem flat and uninteresting. In scientific writing, however, passive voice is more readily accepted since using it allows one to write without using personal pronouns or the names of particular researchers as the subjects of sentences (see the third example above). This practice helps to create the appearance of an objective, fact-based discourse because writers can present research and conclusions without attributing them to particular agents. Instead, the writing appears to convey information that is not limited or biased by individual perspectives or personal interests.

Recognizing Passive Voice

You can recognize passive-voice expressions because the verb phrase will always include a form of be, such as am, is, was, were, are, or been. The presence of a be-verb, however, does not necessarily mean that the sentence is in passive voice. Another way to recognize passive-voice sentences is that they may include a "by the..." phrase after the verb; the agent performing the action, if named, is the object of the preposition in this phrase.

Helpful Hint

You can recognize passive voice because the verb phrase will include a form of be (was, am, are, been, is). Don't assume that just because there is a form of 'be' that the sentence is passive, however. Sometimes a prepositional phrase like "by the" in the sentences above indicates that the action is performed on the subject, and that the sentence is passive.

 

Contributors:April Toadvine, Allen Brizee, Elizabeth Angeli.
Summary:

This handout will explain the difference between active and passive voice in writing. It gives examples of both, and shows how to turn a passive sentence into an active one. Also, it explains how to decide when to choose passive voice instead of active.

Choosing Passive Voice

Choosing Passive Voice

While active voice helps to create clear and direct sentences, sometimes writers find using an indirect expression is rhetorically effective in a given situation, so they choose passive voice.

Also, writers in the sciences conventionally use passive voice more often than writers in other discourses. Passive voice makes sense when the agent performing the action is obvious, unimportant, or unknown or when a writer wishes to postpone mentioning the agent until the last part of the sentence or to avoid mentioning the agent at all. The passive voice is effective in such circumstances because it highlights the action and what is acted upon rather than the agent performing the action.

Active Passive
The dispatcher is notifying police that three prisoners have escaped. Police are being notified that three prisoners have escaped.
Surgeons successfully performed a new experimental liver-transplant operation yesterday. A new experimental liver-transplant operation was performed successfully yesterday.
"Authorities make rules to be broken," he said defiantly. "Rules are made to be broken," he said defiantly.

In each of these examples, the passive voice makes sense because the agent is relatively unimportant compared to the action itself and what is acted upon.

Contributors:April Toadvine, Allen Brizee, Elizabeth Angeli.
Summary:

This handout will explain the difference between active and passive voice in writing. It gives examples of both, and shows how to turn a passive sentence into an active one. Also, it explains how to decide when to choose passive voice instead of active.

Changing Passive to Active Voice

If you want to change a passive-voice sentence to active voice, find the agent in a "by the..." phrase, or consider carefully who or what is performing the action expressed in the verb. Make that agent the subject of the sentence, and change the verb accordingly. Sometimes you will need to infer the agent from the surrounding sentences which provide context.

This passive voice contains a by the... phrase. Removing the 'by the' phase and reworking the sentence will give it the active voice.

Image Caption: This passive voice contains a by the... phrase. Removing the by the... phrase and reworking the sentence will give it the active voice.

This sentence (most of the class is reading the book) now includes the active voice because the agent (most of the class) is now the subject.

Image Caption: Making the agent (most of the class) the subject means this sentence now uses the active voice.

The sentence, results will be published in the next issue of the journal, does not explicitly include a by the...phrase. However, the agent is most likely the researchers, so making the agent the subject of the sentence will simplify it and give it the active voice.

Image Caption: The agent is not explicitly stated, but it is most likely researchers. Making the agent the subject of the sentence will allow you to use the active voice.

The sentence, the researchers will publish their results in the next issue of the journal, uses the active voice because the agent (the researchers) are now performing the action as the sentence subject.

Image Caption: This sentence now uses the active voice because the agent (the researchers) are now performing the action as the sentence subject.

The passive voice sentence, a policy of whitewashing and cover-up has been pursued by the CIA director and his close advisors, includes an agent of change (the CIA director and his close advisors) that are not performing the action in the sentence. Making the agent the subject will give the sentence the active voice.

Image Caption: The CIA director and his close advisors are the agent of change in this sentence, but they are not the subject. Making the agent the subject will transform the sentence into a more concise, active voice phrase.

The sentence, the CIA director and his close advisors have pursued a policy of whitewashing and cover-up, now uses the active voice because the agent (the CIA director and his close advisors) are performing the action as the sentence subject.

Image Caption: This sentence now uses the active voice because the agent (the CIA director and his close advisors) is performing the action as the sentence subject.

The agent is not specified in the sentence, mistakes were made. It is most likely we. This sentence uses the passive voice.

Image Caption: The agent is not specified in this sentence.

The sentence, we made mistakes, now uses the active voice because the agent (we) is the subject of the sentence.

Image Caption: This sentence now uses the active voice because the agent (we) is the subject of the sentence.

If you want to change an active-voice sentence to passive voice, consider carefully who or what is performing the action expressed in the verb, and then make that agent the object of a "by the..." phrase. Make what is acted upon the subject of the sentence, and change the verb to a form of be + past participle. Including an explicit "by the..." phrase is optional.

The sentence, the presiding officer vetoed the committee's recommendation, includes the agent (the presiding officer) performing the action as the sentence subject.

Image Caption: This active voice sentence's agent is the presiding officer, which is the subject.

The sentence, the committee's recommendation was vetoed by the presiding officer, now uses the passive voice. Changing the sentence subject from the agent (the presiding officer) to the object of the verb (the committee's recommendation) and adding a by the...phrase transforms the sentence into the passive voice.

Image Caption: Changing the sentence subject from the agent (the presiding officer) to the object of the verb (the committee's recommendation) and adding a by the...phrase transforms the sentence into the passive voice.

The active voice sentence, the leaders are seeking a fair resolution to the crisis, includes the agent (the leaders) as the subject performing the action of the verb.

Image Caption: This sentence includes the agent (the leaders) as the subject performing the action of the verb.

The sentence, a fair resolution to the crisis is being sought, now uses the passive voice because the subject was changed from the agent (the leaders) to the object of the verb (a fair resolution).

Image Caption: This sentence now uses the passive voice because the subject has been changed from the agent (the leaders) to the object of the verb (a fair resolution).

The scientists are the agent performing the verb's action in the active voice sentence, scientists have discovered traces of ice on the surface of Mars.

Image Caption: The scientists are the agent performing the verb's action in this active voice sentence.

The passive voice sentence, traces of ice have been discovered on the surface of Mars, no longer specifies the agent (scientists) and now uses the passive voice because the verb's object (traces of ice) is now the subject.

Image Caption: This passive voice sentence no longer specifies the agent (scientists) and now uses the passive voice because the verb's object (traces of ice) is now the subject.

Contributors:April Toadvine, Allen Brizee, Elizabeth Angeli.
Summary:

This handout will explain the difference between active and passive voice in writing. It gives examples of both, and shows how to turn a passive sentence into an active one. Also, it explains how to decide when to choose passive voice instead of active.

Further Suggestions for Using Passive and Active Voices

1. Avoid starting a sentence in active voice and then shifting to passive.

Unnecessary shift in voice Revised
Many customers in the restaurant found the coffee too bitter to drink, but it was still ordered frequently. Many customers in the restaurant found the coffee too bitter to drink, but they still ordered it frequently.
He tried to act cool when he slipped in the puddle, but he was still laughed at by the other students. He tried to act cool when he slipped in the puddle, but the other students still laughed at him.

2. Avoid dangling modifiers caused by the use of passive voice. A dangling modifier is a word or phrase that modifies a word not clearly stated in the sentence.

Dangling modifier with passive voice Revised
To save time, the paper was written on a computer. (Who was saving time? The paper?) To save time, Kristin wrote the paper on a computer.
Seeking to lay off workers without taking the blame, consultants were hired to break the bad news. Who was seeking to lay off workers? The consultants?) Seeking to lay off workers without taking the blame, the CEO hired consultants to break the bad news.

3. Don't trust the grammar-checking programs in word-processing software. Many grammar checkers flag all passive constructions, but you may want to keep some that are flagged. Trust your judgment, or ask another human being for their opinion about which sentence sounds best.

The Paramedic Method is an effective process for helping eliminate passive voice.

Contributors:April Toadvine, Allen Brizee, Elizabeth Angeli.
Summary:

This handout will explain the difference between active and passive voice in writing. It gives examples of both, and shows how to turn a passive sentence into an active one. Also, it explains how to decide when to choose passive voice instead of active.

Verbs: Voice and Mood

Active and Passive Voice

Verbs in the active voice show the subject acting. Verbs in the passive voice show something else acting on the subject. Most writers consider the active voice more forceful and tend to stay away from passives unless they really need them.

ACTIVE: Tim killed the chicken hawk.

PASSIVE: The chicken hawk was killed by Tim.

Check out our handout on active and passive verbs.

Indicative, Imperative, and Subjunctive Mood

Most verbs we use are in the indicative mood, which indicates a fact or opinion:

Examples:

Some verbs are in the imperative mood, which expresses commands or requests. Though it is not stated, the understood subject of imperative sentences is you.

Examples:

When verbs show something contrary to fact, they are in the subjunctive mood.

When you express a wish or something that is not actually true, use the past tense or past perfect tense; when using the verb 'to be' in the subjunctive, always use were rather than was:

Examples:

Review

INDICATIVE: I need some help.

IMPERATIVE: Help me!

SUBJUNCTIVE: If I were smart, I'd call for help.