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ACTIVE Vs. PASSIVE VOICE

Active and passive voices refer to the relationship between the subject and the verb. In an active sentence, the subject is doing something. In a passive sentence, the subject does nothing; it is acted upon.

 

Although there are occasions when the passive voice is appropriate, it can also sound dull and wordy. The passive voice has its specific uses in writing, but most of your writing will not need the passive voice, because the active voice makes your writing stronger and livelier.

 

To switch from passive to active voice is really very simple. Instead of having something happen to the subject, you make the subject do something.

 

The pizza was eaten by the girls. (passive)
The girls ate the pizza. (active)

 

Sometimes you may be tempted to use the passive voice to avoid a first person point of view. The result can be stilted and awkward.

 

The house was cleaned, the fish were fed, and then the expensive vase was broken. (passive)
I cleaned the house, I fed the fish, and then I broke the expensive vase.

 

In other words, ask yourself "who kicked whom?"

 

If you find you are using the passive voice in your writing, here are three steps to help you turn a passive sentence into an active one.

 

  1. The original object becomes the subject (the star of the sentence).
  2. The to be form + -en or -ed ending is removed from the active verb (was + eaten, was played).
  3. The original subject becomes the direct object (the person or thing on which the subject acts).

This is much easier than it sounds. Let's turn a passive sentence into an active sentence.

 

Passive:

The cookie
s.
was eaten
v.
by John.
o.

 

In this sentence cookie is the subject, was eaten is the verb, and John is the indirect object. To make this sentence active we need to turn the object, John, into the subject.

 

John ate the cookie. (Active)


The cookie is a direct object because it is the thing being acted upon by the subject, John. He is eating the cookie.

 

There are certain times when it is appropriate to use the passive voice. The first is when you do not need to know who did something, or when we don't know who did it.

 

My car was stolen yesterday. (passive)
Someone stole my car yesterday. (active)

 

You can also use the PassiveVoice in incidents of tragedy, accident or violence.

 

She was kidnapped. (passive)

Someone kidnapped her. (active)

 

Exercise:
Change the following sentences to the active voice.

1. A Republican will be elected as mayor by the public next year.
2. A batch of cookies was made by my son this morning.
3. The subway fare will be raised to $1.50 next week by the city.
4. The play has been called witty and warm by well-known and knowledgeable critics.
5. The pumpkin was tossed off the bridge by that group of trick-or-treaters.
6. My book was dropped off at the library.
7. An example of a passive sentence was demanded by the professor.
8. The guitar was played by the musician.


This handout is based on the following texts:

Harper, Vincent F. Essentials of English. 4th ed. Barron's, USA. 1990.

Kolln, Martha.Understanding English Grammer.2nd ed. MacMillan Publishing Company, New York. 1986.

For further reference, see the following books:
Beason, Larry and Mark Lester. A Commonsense Guide to Grammar and Usage. 2nd ed.  Boston: Bedford. 2000.
Holschuh, Louis W. The Functions of English Grammar. New York: St. Martin's. 1991.

 

All of the above texts are available in The Writing Center.


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