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16.2 Writing in Active Voice and Uses of Passive Voice

Learning Objectives

  1. Differentiate between active and passive voice.
  2. Write in active voice.
  3. Know when and how to use passive voice.

Sydney J. Harris, a Chicago journalist, said, “We have not passed that subtle line between childhood and adulthood until we move from the passive voice to the active voice—that is, until we have stopped saying, ‘It got lost,’ and say, ‘I lost it.’” Besides being a rite of passage in human development, routinely using active voice also marks growth in your writing ability.

As a college writer, you need to know when and how to use both active and passive voice. Although active voiceA sentence in which the subject is doing the action (e.g., “James ate the donut”). is the standard preferred writing style, passive voiceA sentence in which the subject is receiving the action (e.g., “The donut was eaten by James”). is acceptable, and even preferred, in certain situations. However, as a general rule, passive voice tends to be awkward, vague, and wordy.

Recognizing Active and Passive Voice

Lack of awareness or understanding of passive voice may cause you to use it regularly. Once you fully grasp how it differs from active voice, passive voice will begin to stand out. You will then recognize it when you use it as well as when others use it.

To use active voice, you should make the noun that performs the action the subject of the sentence and pair it directly with an action verb.

Read these two sentences:

Matt Damon left Harvard in the late 1980s to start his acting career.

Matt Damon’s acting career was started in the late 1980s when he left Harvard.

In the first sentence, “left” is an action verb that is paired with the subject, “Matt Damon.” If you ask yourself “Who or what left?” the answer is “Matt Damon.” Neither of the other two nouns in the sentence—”Harvard” and “career”—left anything.

Now look at the second sentence. The action verb is “started.” If you ask yourself “Who or what started something?” the answer is again “Matt Damon.” But in this sentence, “career” has been placed in the subject position, not “Matt Damon.” When the doer of the action is not in the subject position, the sentence is in passive voice. In passive voice constructions, the doer of the action usually follows the word “by” as the indirect object of a prepositional phrase, and the action verb is typically partnered with a version of the verb “to be.”

Look at the following two passive voice sentences. For each sentence, note the noun in the subject position, the form of the verb “to be,” the action verb, and the doer of the action.

Example 1

The original screenplay for Good Will Hunting was written by Matt Damon for an English class when he was a student at Harvard University.

Example 2

As an actor, Matt Damon is loved by millions of fans worldwide.

Put the following four sentences to the test in order to determine the voice of each: Is the doer in the subject position paired with an action verb (active voice) or placed as an indirect object of a prepositional phrase after a version of the verb “to be” (passive voice) and a verb in past perfect tense?

  1. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck grew up together and are still colleagues and friends today. (active)
  2. An Oscar was given to Matt Damon and Ben Affleck for the Good Will Hunting script. (passive)
  3. Jason Bourne, a character from the novels of Robert Ludlum, was played several times by Matt Damon. (passive)
  4. Besides acting in the Bourne movies, Matt also played the title character in Good Will Hunting, Saving Private Ryan, and The Talented Mr. Ripley. (active)

Using Action Verbs to Make Sentences More Interesting

Two sentences can generally say the same thing but leave an entirely different impression based on the verb choices. For example, which of the following sentences gives you the most vivid mental picture?

A bald eagle was overhead and now is low in the sky near me.

OR

A bald eagle soared overhead and then dove low, seemingly coming right at me.

As a rule, try to express yourself with action verbs instead of forms of the verb “to be.” Sometimes it is fine to use forms of the verb “to be,” such as “is” or “are,” but it is easy to overuse them (as in this sentence—twice). Overuse of such verbs results in dull writing.

Read each of the following sentences and note the use of the verb “to be.” In your head, think of a way to reword the sentence to make it more interesting by using an action verb. Then look at how each revision uses one or more action verbs.

Examples

Original: A photo was snapped, the tiger was upset, and Elizabeth was on the ground.

Revision: Elizabeth innocently snapped the photo and the lion let out a roar that sent Elizabeth scrambling backward until she fell down.

Original: A giraffe’s neck is long and thin, but it is as much as five hundred pounds in weight.

Revision: A giraffe’s neck wanders far above its body and often weighs as much as five hundred pounds.

Original: An elephant is able to drink eighty gallons of water and is likely to eat one thousand pounds of vegetation in a day.

Revision: In one day, an elephant slurps down eighty gallons of water and grinds away one thousand pounds of vegetation.

You might have developed a tendency to use another rather dull and unimaginative form of passive voice, by starting sentences with “there is,” “there are,” “there were,” “it is,” or “it was.” Read each of the following examples of this kind of passive voice construction. In your head, think of a way to reword the sentence to make it more interesting by using an action verb. Then look at how each sentence can be revised using an action verb.

Examples

Original: There are thousands of butterflies in the Butterfly House.

Revision: Thousands of butterflies flitter around in the Butterfly House.

Original: There were four giraffes eating leaves from the trees.

Revision: Four giraffes ripped mouthfuls of leaves from the trees.

Using Action Verbs Alone to Avoid Passive Voice

Even though the passive voice might include an action verb, the strength of the action verb is lessened by the structure of the sentence. Also, the passive voice tends to create unnecessary wordiness. Read the following sentences and think of a way to reword each using an action verb in active voice. Then study the suggested revision in each case.

Examples

Original: The zebras were fed by the zoo workers. (eight words)

Revision: The zoo workers fed the zebras. (six words)

Original: Water was spewed in the air by the elephant. (nine words)

Revision: The elephant spewed water in the air. (seven words)

Original: The home of the hippopotamus was cleaned up and made tidy by Hank the Hippo Man. (sixteen words)

Revision: Hank the Hippo Man cleaned up and tidied the hippopotamus’s home. (eleven words)

Writing in the Active Voice

Once you completely understand the difference between active and passive voice, writing in active voice becomes easy. All you have to do is to make sure you always clearly say who or what did what. And if you notice you are using forms of the verb “to be” with your action verb, look closely at the reason. If you are writing in progressive tense (“Carrie is walking to my house”) or perfect progressive tense (“Melissa will have been married for four years by then”), you will need to use such helping verbs, even in active voice. (See Chapter 15 "Sentence Building", Section 15.2 "Choosing Appropriate Verb Tenses" for more information on progressive and perfect progressive tenses.)

Using Passive Voice

Sometimes passive voice actually is the best option. The point is to only use passive voice when you consciously decide to do so. Consider the following acceptable uses of passive voice.

  • When you don’t know who or what is responsible for the action:

    Example: Our front door lock was picked.

    Rationale: If you don’t know who picked the lock on your front door, you can’t say who did it. You could say a thief broke in, but that is an assumption. You could, theoretically, find out that the lock was picked by a family member who had forgotten to take a key.

  • When you want to hide the person or thing responsible for the action, such as in a story:

    Example: The basement was filled with a mysterious scraping sound.

    Rationale: If you are writing a story, you might logically introduce a phenomenon without revealing the person or thing that caused it.

  • When the person or thing that performed the action is not important:

    Example: The park was flooded all week.

    Rationale: Although you would obviously know that the rainwater flooded the park, it is not important to say so.

  • When you do not want to place credit, responsibility, or blame:

    Example: A mistake was made in the investigation that resulted in the wrong person being on trial.

    Rationale: Even if you think you know who is responsible for a problem, you might not want to expose the person.

  • When you want to maintain the impression of objectivity:

    Example: It was noted that only first graders chose to eat the fruit.

    Rationale: Research reports in certain academic disciplines attempt to remove the researcher from the results, to avoid saying, for example, “I noted that only first graders….”

  • When you want to avoid using a gendered construction and pluralizing is not an option (see Section 16.3 "Using Subordination and Coordination" for more on nonsexist language):

    Example: If the password is forgotten by the user, a security question will be asked.

    Rationale: This construction avoids the need for “his or her” (as in “the user forgets his or her password”).

Key Takeaways

  • In active voice, the subject of the sentence completes the action. In passive voice, the action is performed by someone or something other than the subject of the sentence.
  • As a rule, you should write using the active voice in order to make sentences more interesting.
  • One way to avoid dull sentences is to avoid starting sentences with wording such as “there are,” “there was,” and “it is.”
  • Using action verbs without the verb “to be” creates stronger, active voice sentences.
  • Some specific situations call for the use of the passive voice.

Exercises

  1. Pay attention to material you read over one week. From the things you read, collect at least ten examples of sentences written in passive voice. Take the sentences you collected and rewrite them in the active voice.
  2. Choose one of the examples of acceptable uses of passive voice cited in this section and write a sample paragraph demonstrating that usage.
  3. Rewrite each of these sentences using an action verb in active voice:

    1. There were five guys sharing a pizza on the back patio.
    2. Jane is at her parents’ house for the weekend.
    3. The movie was enjoyed by all of us.
    4. It was a long night when the three of us decided to build a set of bunk beds.
    5. The bus ride from here to Chicago is long and bumpy.