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More about Passive Voice

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.

Contributors:April Toadvine, Allen Brizee, Elizabeth Angeli
Last Edited: 2011-07-13 11:17:29

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.

 

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