Active and Passive Voice
In order to strengthen your writing style, we now have to address another common offender: Passive Verbs. When the subject of the sentence is actively doing something, this is called an active verb. The dog walks, They won the game, The officer arrested the criminal. Active verbs do not have to be action verbs – in the sentence, “Sara seems tired,” it is Sara and not someone else who seems (linking verb) tired, so the sentence is still in the active voice. Now, when the subject of the sentence is NOT actively performing any action, but instead is having something done to it, this is called a passive verb, and is stylistically weak in nearly every case. For example, The dog is being walked, The game was won, The criminal was arrested by the officer. Notice in every case, the passive verb requires some form of to be, which we are already suspicious of anyway in our writing.
And for the record, examples of acceptable passive voice are when the subject is unknown or doesn’t matter (“The bank was robbed this afternoon” – we don’t know who robbed the bank, “The water was emptied from the well” – who or what emptied it? Nobody cares.), but even in these cases, an active voice would work. When it comes to writing a powerful essay, always go with the active voice.
Examples – Making sentences active
Often, you can make a sentence more forceful by writing the verb in active voice instead of passive voice.
Passive: The movie was given five stars by Robert Ebert.
Active: Roger Ebert gave the movie five stars.
The voice of a sentence identifies the relationship between the subject and the verb.
In an active voice sentence, the subject performs the action of the verb.
Active: Roger Ebert reviewed Shakespeare in Love. Gwyneth Paltrow plays the role of Viola De Lesseps. The film delighted audiences.
In the example above, each subject is active in relation to its verb. The ideas in each sentence move forward from subject to verb to object. Each word is a power word because it is vial to the meaning of the sentence.
In a passive voice sentence, the subject is acted upon; it receives the action of the verb.
Passive: Shakespeare in Love was reviewed by Roger Ebert. The role of Viola De Lesseps is played by Gwyneth Paltrow. Audiences were delighted by the film.
In this example, each subject is passive in relation to its verb. In other words, some other agent performs action upon the subject, and the subject just rests there and takes it in.
Q: How can I tell if a verb is in the passive voice?
A: The passive voice is formed by combining a form of the “to be” verb with the past participle of the main verb. (The ‘to be’ verbs are am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been.) Here are examples:
SUBJECT to be verb MAIN VERB
Joseph Fiennes is featured. (What featured him?)
The movie was enjoyed. (Who enjoyed it?)
Paltrow had been interviewed. (Who interviewed her?)
Tickets will be purchased. (Who will purchase them?)
The passive voice sentences above do not identify who performs the action of the verb. When passive voice sentences contain this information, it usually takes the form of a prepositional phrase following the verb.
SUBJECT to be verb MAIN VERB prepositional phrase
Joseph Fiennes is featured by the movie.
The movie was enjoyed by viewers.
Paltrow had been interviewed by David Letterman.
Tickets will be purchased by many.
Even though the above sentences tell who performed the action, the sentences are still passive. Why? The verb is still in the passive voice. Now look at these sentences revised to be in active voice:
SUBJECT verb DIRECT OBJECT
The movie features Joseph Feinnes.
Viewers enjoyed the movie.
David L had interviewed Paltrow.
Many will purchase tickets.
In the active voice, we do not need a prepositional phrase to identify the doer of the action. The active voice sentences are more direct, more concise, more forceful.
Q: How can I revise a sentence in the passive to be in the active?
A: First, find the verb. Then, ask yourself who or what is performing the action of the verb. Usually, this “who” or “what” is a noun or pronoun following the passive voice verb. Finally, rewrite the sentence using this noun or pronoun as the subject.
Q: Is it ever okay to use the passive voice?
A: Yes. Passive voice has certain useful purposes. When you want to emphasize the person or thing acted upon, use the passive voice.
EX: Shakespeare in Love has been released on DVD.
Passive voice sentences are also appropriate when the performer of the action is unknown, or the writer does not want to reveal who performed the action.
EX: Thirteen DVDs were stolen.
EX: The day manager has been accused of the theft.
(Source: Favor, Sentences & Paragraphs 30-31)
Practice changing from passive to active here!