#5. Active and Passive Voice
Active Voice occurs when the subject of the sentence does the action.
John will load the trailer.
John (actor) will load (action) the trailer.
Passive Voice occurs when the subject of the sentence receives the action.
The trailer will be loaded by John.
The trailer (receiver) will be loaded (action) by John (actor).
Problems With Passive
The style of writing which the Army adopted in 1984, requires writers to use active voice whenever possible.
- Passive voice obscures or loses part of the substance (the actor) of a sentence. When you use passive voice, the receiver of the action becomes the subject of the sentence; and the actor appears in a prepositional phrase after the verb.
Worse yet, you can leave the actor out completely and still have a good English sentence. This means you have eliminated part of the substance.
- Calisthenics were conducted by the Coach.
Calisthenics (subject) were conducted (verb) by the Coach (actor). (Calisthenics is not the actor.)
- Your pay records were lost.
Your pay records (subject) were lost (verb). (No actor)
- Passive voice is less conversational than active voice. Therefore, it is less natural when someone reads it.
Passive: A drink of water is required by me.
Active: I need a drink of water.
- Passive voice is less efficient than active voice. Active writing usually requires fewer words to get the same message to your audience. The number of words saved per sentence may seem small, but when you multiply that savings by the number of sentences in a paper, the difference is much more significant.
Passive: The letter was typed by Cheryl. (6 words.)
Active: Cheryl typed the letter. (4 words, a 33 percent reduction.)
Identifying Passive Voice
You can locate passive voice in your writing in much the same way a computer would. Look for a form of the verb "to be" (am, is, are, was, were, be, being, or been) followed by a past participle verb (a verb ending in ed, en, or t). Passive voice requires BOTH!
Your leave was approved by the commander.
Your leave was (verb) approved (past participle verb) by the commander.
A "to be" verb by itself is simply an inactive verb (shows no action). A verb ending in ed, en, or t by itself is a past tense verb and not passive voice.
The rifle is loaded. (No physical action taking place.)
The Eagle landed on the Moon. (An action in the past.)
Once you have found the passive voice in your (or someone else's writing), you have to decide whether you want to change it to active or not.
That's right. There are times when passive voice is appropriate.
- Use passive voice when you want to emphasize the receiver of the action.
Passive: Your mother was taken to the hospital.
Active: An ambulance took your mother to the hospital.
- Use passive voice when you don't know who did the action.
Passive: The rifle was stolen.
Active: A person or persons stole the rifle.
Changing Passive Voice To Active Voice
If you decide to change the passive voice to active voice, the process is really quite simple. First, find out who did, is doing, or will do the action--the actor. Next, use the actor as the subject of the sentence. Finally, use the right tense active verb to express the action. Bingo!
A voice/tense matrix
John wrecks the car.
John wrecked the car.
The car is being wrecked by John.
The car was wrecked by John.