Self Teaching Unit:

Active / Passive Voice

  2008 Margaret L. Benner


Active voice

In most English sentences with an action verb, the subject performs the action denoted by the verb.

    These examples show that the subject is  doing the verb's action.


Because the subject does or "acts upon" the verb in such sentences, the sentences are said to be in the active voice.

To see how well you understand active voice, do Exercise 1.


Passive voice

One can change the normal word order of many active sentences (those with a direct object) so that the subject is no longer active, but is, instead, being acted upon by the verb - or passive.

    Note in these examples how the subject-verb relationship has changed.


Because the subject is being "acted upon" (or is passive), such sentences are said to be in the passive voice.

Now do Exercise 2.


Writers can change most sentences from active to passive or from passive to active as desired.

To change a sentence from active to passive voice, do the following:

    1.  Move  the active sentence's direct object into the sentence's subject  slot


    2. Place the active sentence's subject into a  phrase beginning with the preposition by


    3.  Add a form of the auxiliary verb be to the main verb and change the  main verb's form as required



Now do Exercise 3.



Because passive voice sentences necessarily add words and change the normal doer-action-receiver of action direction, they may make the reader work harder to understand the intended meaning.

As the examples below illustrate, a sentence in  active voice  flows more smoothly and is easier to understand than the same sentence in  passive voice.



It is generally preferable to use the ACTIVE voice.


To change a passive voice sentence into an active voice sentence, simply reverse the steps shown above.

    1.  Move  the passive sentence's subject into the active  sentence's  direct object slot


    2.  Remove  the auxiliary verb be from the main verb and change main verb's form if needed


    3. Place the passive sentence's object of the preposition by into the subject slot.




Some passive voice sentences may not even mention a doer of the action.




To change sentences like these into active voice, create a doer-of-the-action subject.



Because active voice is more direct, most writers prefer to use it whenever possible.


Now do Exercise 4.

When should one use the passive voice?

The passive voice may be a better choice when



        Since we do not know (or need to know)  who counted the ballots or who appreciates our efforts, passive voice works fine in the example above.


The passive voice may also be a better choice when



        The above examples emphasize what happened -- something was broken, someone was questioned for sixteen hours --rather than  who made it happen.


The passive voice may also be a better choice when


Now try the post test.