Active and Passive Voice by Ebony McKenna
If an editor suggests writing things in active voice, what does this really mean?
In a nutshell, with sentences written in active voice, the subject performs the action that is expressed in the verb. It can sometimes be a strange concept to grasp, but with practice and repetition, you’ll start to notice it everywhere, especially on radio & TV news bulletins.
For our first example:
Active: The company ships the computers overseas.
In this instance, the company is the subject, and performs the action, which in this instance is the word ‘ships’.
However, in passive voice, the subject sometimes disappears, and the object – in this case the computers – have the action performed on them by the subject.
Passive: Computers are shipped overseas.
In this example, we don’t know the subject, so the reader is left to assume that the computers are shipped “by the company”
Active voice tells us who is doing what.
Active: The chef is preparing the food.
Compare this to the Passive: The food is being prepared.
The implication in the passive example is that someone is preparing food, but the writer hasn’t told us the subject. It could be a group of students, chefs, or even criminals keen to mend their ways.
They key “flag” to look for in passive voice is not past tense, but the implied “by whom”, usually left off the end of a sentence.
The boy kicked the ball – active
The ball was kicked by the boy – passive
The delivery man brought the package yesterday - active
The package was delivered yesterday – passive.
Implied “by whom” – you assume it was the postie. But it might have been a neighbour, a lover, or a carrier pigeon.
Passive voice is often indirect, whereas active voice makes things more direct. Use active voice when you want to pick up the pace and move things along.
There is nothing wrong with their passive or active voice, it’s more a matter of working out which works best for your situation. If you’re writing a non-fiction report or analysis, then passive voice can work well. If you’re writing a novel full of action and romance, (gee, really?) then active can keep things humming.
One of the drawbacks of passive voice is that it can let people off the hook.
We made mistakes – active. This means you’ve owned up to your mistakes.
Mistakes were made – passive – leading the reader to wonder, “yes, but who made them and who can I blame?”
So the key is to read a sentence and ask yourself if you know who’s doing it, or who’s done it. If you’re left wondering ‘by what or by whom’ then it’s passive voice.
Snares, traps and blunders:
Avoid starting a sentence in active voice and then shifting to passive, or vice versa.
Voice shift: Many customers in the restaurant found the coffee too bitter to drink, but it was still ordered frequently.
Revised: Many customers in the restaurant found the coffee too bitter to drink, but they still ordered it frequently.
Voice shift: He tried to act cool when he slipped in the puddle, but he was still laughed at by the other students.
Revised: He tried to act cool when he slipped in the puddle, but the other students still laughed at him.
Now that you’ve seen a few examples, you’ll find yourself noticing them more and more. It doesn’t mean passive is ‘wrong’ but when it’s overused, it makes things sound dull and lifeless. Listen to ABC 774 news and it’s full of passive voice. I’ll bet they haven’t noticed!
More examples, active in regular text, passive in bold.
They make Fords in Cologne.
Fords are made in Cologne.
Susan is cooking dinner.
Dinner is being cooked by Susan
James Joyce wrote "Dubliners".
"Dubliners" was written by James Joyce.
They were painting the house when I arrived.
The house was being painted when I arrived.
They have produced over 20 models in the past two years.
Over 20 models have been produced in the past two years.
Future Intention with Going to
They are going to build a new factory in Portland.
A new factory is going to be built in Portland.
I will finish it tomorrow.
It will be finished tomorrow.
Where Passive voice works well.
There are often times when passive voice requires less text, because of the implied subject.
"Rules are made to be broken," he said defiantly. Is a great use of passive voice. To put this in active voice, would weaken the idea that some rules really are made to be broken. “I was made to break rules” makes me sound like I’m up myself
“Trespassers prosecuted”. Is a fine example of good passive. To write this in active, you’d need to say something like “We will prosecute trespassers”.
The following sentences are written in passive voice. Change them to active voice.
1 The instructions have been changed.
Someone ____________ the instructions.
2 She will have to be taught.
Someone ________________________ her.
3 This car was manufactured in Japan by Toyota.
Toyota ____________this car in Japan.
4 Why aren't the exercises being finished on time?
Why ________________________ the exercises on time?
5 Last year 2,000 new units had been produced by the time we introduced the new design.
We ________________________2,000 new units by the time we introduced the new design last year.
6 Casual clothes must not be worn.
You ________________________casual clothes.
7 $400,000 in profit has been reported this year.
The company ____________$400,000 in profit this year.
8 The test will be given at five o'clock this afternoon.
The school ____________the test at five o'clock this afternoon.
9 Students are required to wear uniforms at all times.
The school ____________ students to wear uniforms at all times.
10 This rumor must have been started by our competitors.
Our competitors ________________________this rumor.
11 All work will have been completed by five o'clock this evening.
You ________________________ all work by five o'clock this evening.
12 We were told to wait here.
Someone ____________ us to wait here.
13 Lunch was being served when we arrived.
They ____________ lunch when we arrived.
14 Lectures are recorded and posted on the Internet.
They ____________lectures on the Internet.
15 Portuguese has always been spoken in this village.
People in this village ____________Portuguese.
More examples and ideas:
or put ‘active passive voice’ in a search engine and see what you find.