Active and Passive Voice (Why It’s Important to Prefer Active Verbs)

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Active verbs form efficient, powerful sentences.

This document will teach you why and how to prefer active verbs over passive verbs.

  • The subject of an active voice sentence performs the action of the verb:  “I throw the ball.”
  • The subject of a passive voice sentence is still the main character of the sentence, but something else performs the action: “The ball is thrown by me.

Active and Passive Voice (Why to Prefer Active Verbs)Contents

  1. How to Recognize Active and Passive Sentences
  2. Basic Examples
  3. Difference between Passive Voice and Past Tense
  4. Imperatives: Active Commands
  5. Sloppy Passive Construction
  6. Linking Verbs: Neither Active nor Passive
  7. Passive Voice is not Wrong
  8. Tricky Examples
  9. Links to Active & Passive Verb Resources
  10. Works Cited

1. How to Recognize Active and Passive Sentences ^

  1. Find the subject (the main character of the sentence).
  2. Find the main verb (the action that the sentence identifies).
  3. Examine the relationshipbetween the subject and main verb.
    • Does the subject perform the action of the main verb? (If so, the sentence is active.)
    • Does the subject sit there while something else — named or unnamed –performs an action on it? (If so, the sentence is passive.)
    • Can’t tell? If the main verb is a linking verb (“is,” “was,” “are,” “seems (to be),” “becomes” etc.), then the verb functions like an equals sign; there is no action involved — it merely describes a state of being.

2. Basic Examples ^

I love you.

  1. subject: “I”
  2. action: “loving”
  3. relationship: The subject (“I”) is the one performing the action (“loving”).

The sentence is active.

You are loved by me.

  1. subject: “you”
  2. action: “loving”
  3. relationship: The subject (“You”) sits passively while the action (“loving”) is performed by somebody else (“me”).

This sentence is passive.

3. Difference between Passive Voice and Past Tense ^

Many people confuse the passive voice with the past tense. The most common passive constructions also happen to be past tense (e.g. “I’ve been framed”), but “voice” has to do with who, while “tense” has to do with when.

Active Voice Passive Voice
Past Tense I taught; I learned. I was (have been) taught [by someone];
It was (has been) learned [by someone].
Present Tense I teach; I learn. I am [being] taught [by someone];
It is [being] learned [by someone].
Future Tense I will teach; I will learn. I will be taught [by someone];
It will be learned [by someone].

4. Imperatives: Active Commands ^

A command (or “imperative”) is a kind of active sentence, in which “you” (the one being addressed) are being ordered to perform the action. (If you refuse to obey, the sentence is still active.)

  • Get to work on time.
  • Insert tab A into slot B.
  • Take me to your leader.
  • Ladies and gentlemen, let us consider, for a moment, the effect of the rafting sequences on our understanding of the rest of the novel.

5. Sloppy Passive Constructions ^

Because passive sentences do not need to identify the performer of an action, they can lead to sloppy or misleading statements (especially in technical writing). Compare how clear and direct these passive sentences become, when they are rephrased as imperative sentences.

Ambiguous Passive Verbs

To drain the tank, the grill should be removed, or the storage compartment can be flooded.

Because they do not specify the actors, the passive constructions (“should be removed” and “can be flooded”) contribute to the ambiguity of this sentence. Does the author intend to

  1. offer two different ways to drain the tank (“you may either remove the grill or flood the compartment”)?
  2. warn of an undesirable causal result (“if you drain the tank without removing the grill, the result will be that the storage compartment is flooded”)?

The readers would have to know something about how the tank works in order to make sense of the instructions, but the thing about instructions is that people are reading them because they don’t already know what to do. Here are two ways you could fix the ambiguity.

Revision 1:

Drain the tank in one of the following ways:

  • remove the grill
  • flood the storage compartment

Revision 2:

1) Remove the grill.
2) Drain the tank.

Warning:
If you fail to remove the grill first, you may flood the storage compartment (which is where you are standing right now).

See also: “Instructions: How to Write Guides for Busy, Grouchy People

6. Linking Verbs: Neither Active nor Passive ^

When the verb performs the function of an equals sign, the verb is said to be a linking verb. Linking verbs describe no action — they merely state an existing condition or relationship; hence, they are neither passive nor active.

Subject = Description
The door is blue.
The door was closed.
This could be the first day of the rest of my life.
She might have been very nice.

7. The Passive Voice Is not Wrong ^

Passive verbs are not automatically wrong. When used rarely and deliberately, the passive voice serves an important purpose.
  • When you wish to downplay the action:

Mistakes will be made, and lives will be lost; the sad truth is learned anew by each generation.

  • When you wish to downplay the actor:

Three grams of reagent ‘A’ were added to a beaker of 10% saline solution.

(In the scientific world, the actions of a researcher are ideally not supposed to affect the outcome of an experiment; the experiment is supposed to be the same no matter who carries it out. I will leave it to you and your chemistry professor to figure out whether that’s actually true, but in the meantime, don’t use excessive passive verbs simply to avoid using “I” in a science paper.)

  • When the actor is unknown:The victim was approached from behind and hit over the head with a salami.

8. Tricky Examples ^

Punctuality seems important.

  1. subject: the phrase “punctuality”
  2. action: “being” (“seems” is short for “seems to be”)
  3. relationship: The subject does nothing at all; the verb “is” functions as an equals sign: “punctuality = important”.

This sentence describes a state of being (neither active nor passive).

(If you replace the single word “punctuality” with the phrase “Getting to work on time” or “The sum total of the knowledge of tribes of prehistoric America collected by amateur archeologists during the latter half of the nineteenth century,” the grammar of the sentence does not change.)

Remember to brush your teeth.

  1. subject: (You) This is an order; the subject is the person being ordered.
  2. action: “remember” (not “brushing”)
  3. relationship: The subject is supposed to do the remembering. Whether the subject actually obeys the command is irrelevant to the grammar of the sentence.

This sentence gives an order. Active.

(It may be grammatically possible to give an order with a passive verb, such as a Shakespearean curse like “Be damned!” But most commands you encounter will be active.)

9. Links to Active & Passive Verb Resources ^

Troy Sterling uses the active voice: "I wear my riding cap rakishly!"Looking for more help?

10. Works Cited ^

Orwell, George. "Politics and the English Language."A Collection of Essays. New York: Doubleday Anchor Books,1954. 167-177.

Strunk, William. Elements of Style. Ithaca, N.Y.: Priv print,1918. <http://www.bartleby.com/141/> 03 Jul 2004.

United States. Securities and Exchange Commission. A Plain English Handbook. Draft. Washington D.C. 1977.  <http://www.sec.gov/consumer/plaine.htm>. 12 Apr 1999.

Dennis G. Jerz
25 Sep 2000 — first posted
21 May 2002 — minor maintenance
05 Nov 2002 — minor reformatting
04 Jul 2004 — rearrangement and tweaking
03 oct 2007 — fixed broken link
15 Jun 2008 — minor edits

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23 Archived Comments

thanks for the information
hope i can subscribe everytime i will go to your site.
we have many assignment in our english and ..hope you will help me..,

Phillip said:

Yo bro. cant say thanks enough for this copyrighted info. laterz biaaaaaaaaaaaro

Daapusspie said:

Be dammed. Be good. Be dead. Be strong. Be active. Be passive. Be here now. Wow, this is fun.

Mohammad said:

Attention:site manager
Thank’s for your help.This method is really work for me.
Best regards

heather bruce said:

I enjoyed reading through your site and found some very helpful tips for writing in my English & Creative Writing classes this term. Thanks for sharing a wealth of information with us. Happy day to you! (-:

Desmond ayo Ojumu said:

Thank you very much for this article it realy help. Please i want to start serious writting and i need help with creative writting book. Thank you.

judy ann nunez said:

tnx for the information you have given to me…

beverlyn said:

…………thankz for the information!!!!!!!!!

fo2a said:

thx thx thx for all information

jeddou032 said:

Hi I am Jeddou from Mauritania I want you to send me the lesson of Passive Voice with Action Verbs.Thank you.

daniel said:

fine when I am done changing I am getting out of here, I said harshly!

so how am i supposed to change that sentance into a passive sentance?

“Blah blah,” was said harshly by me.

daniel said:

ok so all i have to do is change the way i end my sentances in order to make it into a passive sentance. right?

No. Take a look at this slide show. It will teach you step-by-step.

http://jerz.setonhill.edu/weblog/permalink/4343/

sahar said:

why we dont make the passive voice of persent perfect,futuer continuos nd so on,

Those forms certainly exist, but this page is only designed to introduce the concept, rather than function as a grammar reference.

BeadleBelfry said:

I’ll be using this to prove ,y teacher wrong about linking verbs. Many thanks. I always enjoy making teachers look wrong when they’re being jerks.

Really, is that the best thing you can think of doing with your time, BeadleBelfry?

Seriously, I can see how someone else might say the action of a linking verb is being, and that the subject of the linking verb is performing that action, hence a sentence with a linking verb js active.

My purpose for writing this handout was not to help anyone prove anyone else wrong, and your comment has made me want to look up that point. My purpose in writing the handout was to explain to my students how choosing active verbs will help them improve their writing..

Stef said:

Thank you kindly for insisting on the difference between tenses and voices. (So many teachers and textbook writers, sadly, neither know nor care.)

If it helps, I teach the voices this way:
ACTIVE: the subject of the verb is the subject of the action
PASSIVE: the subject of the verb is the *object* of the action

This is why only transitive verbs can properly be made passive. Not to pick nits, but that is also why I see linking verbs (intransitive) as unable to form a passive; I personally still consider them active, but I do like your way of explaining things.

Stef said:

(I just realized something… in your “linking verb” section, you use the example “The door was closed.” Teehee… that *is* a passive! We just sometimes use passive structures when there is no proper adjective to give the meaning that the past participle can offer. Still, to avoid confusion, you might want to change it to “The door was open.”)

(You don’t need to post this comment; I just wanted to let you know. Cheers!)

Thanks for your comments, Stef. I would agree that in a sentence like “The door was closed by the wind,” “was closed” is a passive verb.

Yes, the action of the verb “to be” is simply “being,” so technically the subject of “I am” is performing the “being” action.

But since “The door was open” and “The door was closed” describe the status of the door (much like “The door was large,” “The door was red”), for the purposes of the “prefer active verbs” lesson in writing style, I thought it would be too distracting to get into that level of detail.

Stef said:

I agree with your point. My personal preference is, where possible, to give the “whole” concept, but I agree that most of the time, simple is better. ;p

However… I am finding (after teaching the same material for a number of years, and seeing consistent problems among my students) that showing how the past participle *always* relates in some way to the result of an action (either as passive or as perfect) can be helpful. I’m finding that the “bored/boring” issue, for one, is easiest resolved by going straight into the differences between the participles, and building the tenses/voices on those differences. (I’m in ESL, with Chinese-language students.)

Just to be clear, though, I meant no criticism. ;p

Yes, if I were using this handout in the engineering school where I used to teach technical writing, I would have to go into much greater detail for the benefit of ESL learners.

 

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29 thoughts on “Active and Passive Voice (Why It’s Important to Prefer Active Verbs)

  1. big thanks for this article. it really helps a person like me that needs a plainly notes before doing things corretly.thanks …….and….god bless.

  2. Pingback: Troy Sterling and the Active and Passive Verbs — Jerz's Literacy Weblog

  3. There is a small problem: :Can’t tell? If the main verb is a linking verb (“is,” “was,” “are,” “seems (to be),” “becomes” etc.), then the verb functions like an equals sign; there is no action involved — it merely describes a state of being.” The problem with this statement is that all stative verbs describe a state of being, but many lead to objects and are active and can be written in the passive. An example is even give using love: “I love you.” “you are loved by me.” Since love is a stative verb one connot claim that a verb that merely describes a state of being cannot be active or passive.

    • Thanks for your comment. My intention for this page is to help readers improve their writing. You are correct that I have simplified the grammar, and in so doing I may have written myself into a corner. How would you phrase that passage, so I can make my point effectively for beginners, without oversimplifying?

  4. thanks so much, I was wondering why the titles were in 173 or 200 sized font? Passive voice is my hardest lesson to learn, when writing in past tense. I used it when tying up a scene, and can’t seem to rewrite it to make it still convey what I want without sounding dorky.

    keep up the good work

  5. Though i was confused in using the Passive and Active words… but i now find it so interesting and comprehensive today. Thanks a lot for this..

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  8. Dear,
    Dennis G. Jerz , I have got a problem , the situation is that A show was going to begin sometimes later, while the time already passed , A person suddenly say: The Show has begun, Show cannot start automatically but can i use a verb like passive , the person was not a English man,he did not wanted to show the do-er,who did the action.He supposed to say that the show already started , “The show has begun” right or wrong sentence / which form ?

    • Passive voice has nothing to do with time, so I’m not sure I understand the question. “The show has begun” is an active sentence, because the show is doing the beginning.

      • Dear,
        Dennis G. Jerz,
        I am poor in english. Sorry to interrupt you again, Our national language is Bengle.In language’s grammar there are four voices active,passive,quasi passive and impersonal voice.Again i tell you the show cannot do anything , In our language , The show has begun , it means like a transitive verb (Begin). We cannot say : Show has begun the show ,as you said that the show is doing the action.Our language has two meaning of the (begin word) .It looks but i am no sure, I know that (begin=start), but “The has begun” it looks like (begin= Be start) I do not know you understand or not what I used to say.Please give me
        some instruction

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