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.”
- How to Recognize Active and Passive Sentences
- Basic Examples
- Difference between Passive Voice and Past Tense
- Imperatives: Active Commands
- Sloppy Passive Construction
- Linking Verbs: Neither Active nor Passive
- Passive Voice is not Wrong
- Tricky Examples
- Links to Active & Passive Verb Resources
- Works Cited
1. How to Recognize Active and Passive Sentences ^
- Find the subject (the main character of the sentence).
- Find the main verb (the action that the sentence identifies).
- Examine the relationship between 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.|
|You are loved by me.|
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
- offer two different ways to drain the tank (“you may either remove the grill or flood the compartment”)?
- 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.
Drain the tank in one of the following ways:
- remove the grill
- flood the storage compartment
1) Remove the grill.
2) Drain the tank.
If you fail to remove the grill first, you may flood the storage compartment (which is where you are standing right now).
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.
|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 ^
- 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.|
|Remember to brush your teeth.|
9. Links to Active & Passive Verb Resources ^
10. Works Cited ^
Strunk, William. Elements of Style. Ithaca, N.Y.: Priv print,1918. <http://www.bartleby.com/141/> 03 Jul 2004.
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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