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Active and Passive Sentences

 

You probably have been told at some point in your school career that you should write in the active voice or that you should write active sentences, that they are in some way more desirable than passive sentences. Well, that’s not always correct. Whether you choose to write in the active voice or the passive voice depends entirely on what you choose to reveal or emphasize in the sentences you write. The passive voice is more desirable than the active voice in certain situations. The trick is in deciding what those situations are.

 

So, what is voice anyway? Voice is simply the name we have given to a grammatical choice we can make in sentence structure—whether we want the subject of a sentence to be the doer of the action in the sentence or whether we want the subject of the sentence to be the receiver of the action. Or another way to look at it is do we want the verb to describe what the subject does or to describe something that is done to the subject? Consider the following sentences.

 

Jack broke the window.

 

In this sentence the subject (Jack) does the action (broke), or the other way to say it is that the verb (broke) describes what the subject (Jack) does. We say that this sentence is active or in the active voice because the subject is active—the subject does something. Now let’s consider another way to arrange this sentence.

 

The window was broken by Jack.

 

Obviously this sentence contains the same information as the original sentence, but it has been rearranged. Now the subject of the sentence (window) doesn’t do the action—it receives the action, is acted upon (was broken). Or we can say that the verb (was broken) describes something that was done to the subject (window). This sentence is in the passive voice because the subject of the sentence is passive.

 

So what? What difference does it make? Well, for one thing, notice that in the passive sentence we don’t find out who does the action until the end of the sentence, and by moving that information to the end, we redistribute the emphasis in the sentence. Now we emphasize window by virtue of its position at the beginning of the sentence. Obviously that would be useful if we wanted for some reason to emphasize window or wanted to delay our reader’s knowledge that it was Jack who broke the window.

 

But there is another peculiarity of the passive voice that we haven’t looked at yet—and that is that it allows us to completely hide who does the action.

Consider the following sentence.

 

The window was broken.

 

In this sentence we have completely eliminated the information about who did the breaking. Those of us who have ever done anything we weren’t supposed to do can see the obvious advantage to being able to write this kind of sentence. We don’t have to acknowledge that we did whatever it was that we did wrong. But this kind of passive sentence is useful in other situations as well. For instance, it lets us focus only on the action itself when that is the most important issue. Additionally, it allows us to talk about some wrong or undesirable action without assessing blame. In other words, it lets us talk about undesirable actions while allowing the person who did them to save face. We can allow that person to keep his or her dignity. And we can be seen as being very courteous, which is almost always a desirable outcome. By hiding the actor, this kind of sentence allows us also to create or maintain an air of mystery when that seems to be called for. We can also use this kind of sentence when we don’t know who did the action.

 

So, you see in certain situations the passive sentence is not only useful, it’s necessary. But most of the time, the active sentence (when the subject of the sentence does the action) is the best choice. It has certain advantages in most situations. Because it tells us immediately who did what, it creates an air of energy and confidence. It allows us to give all the important information directly, so it has great force, and unlike the passive sentence, it demystifies the situation. It clarifies rather than mystifies. We can see the advantages to using the active voice in most of the sentences we write.

 

It seems useful at this point to talk about how passive and active sentences are constructed.

 

Let’s begin with the active sentence

 

John broke the window.

 

Notice that it has a subject (John) followed by an active verb (broke) which is itself followed by a direct object, something that receives the action of the verb (the window).

In order to convert this sentence into its passive form, we must do four things:

  1. Move the direct object (the window) to the subject position at the beginning of the sentence
  2. Move the original subject (John) to the end of the sentence and put by before it, or eliminate it altogether
  3. Change the verb form from past tense (broke) to its past participle (broken)
  4. And add a form of to be (in this case was) as a helping verb to broken.

If we complete all four steps we end up with the passive sentence

 

The window was broken by John.

 

To convert a passive sentence to an active one, we simply reverse the process.

  1. Move the direct object (window) to its regular position behind the verb
  2. Move the original subject (John) back to the subject position at the beginning of the sentence
  3. Change the verb from the past participle (broken) to the past tense (broke)
  4. Remove the helping verb was.

We have restored the sentence to its active voice—we have made the subject the doer of the action again.


You can test your understanding of this handout by completing Student Success Center exercises available here.

 

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