How To Write Clearly: Active and Passive Voices

There are many ways of approaching written English, and two of the major styles are "active voice" and "passive voice". Although the active voice is generally preferable, each of these writing styles has its uses.

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"Passive" in grammar means that the subject of a sentence undergoes the action of the verb. This means that an action is "done to" the subject (rather than the object). So, say we've got a simple (active) sentence: Troy ate jelly snakes. Troy is the subject (actor or doer) of the sentence, ate is the verb, and jelly snakes are the object (having the action — eating — done TO them).

To turn this sentence into the passive voice, we need to turn the object (the jelly snakes) into the subject (the actor or doer role). So we end up with: The jelly snakes were eaten by Troy. Or even simpler: The jelly snakes were eaten.

As you can see, the passive voice isn't as forceful, direct, or interesting as the active voice, and tends to be longer too. In most writing, it is preferable to use the active voice; your readers will thank you!

But the passive voice does have its uses. It is often used in scientific and academic writing, where the word "I" is often avoided. It's more correct in this situation to write "An experiment was carried out" than "I did an experiment". Universities and academic institutions and journals have their own guidelines for this, so it's best to check what is required stylistically.

The passive voice is also widely used in bureaucratic writing (which is partly why it's so long and dull to read!). It's a handy way to avoid personal responsibility, too. My report was accidentally destroyed by water damage sounds so much better than I dropped my report in the bath!

Passive writing can be confusing though, as it's not always clear what the writer really means. It tends to be long-winded, and creates convoluted sentences.

Here are some sentences written in active and passive versions:

Active Passive
Ericka hugged Tom. Tom was hugged by Ericka.
I chucked the cat over the fence. The cat was chucked over the fence.
I did an experiment on the triple point of water. An experiment on the triple point of water was carried out.
The ducks attacked the squirrels. The squirrels were attacked by the ducks.
He ate the pizza. The pizza was eaten.
I will always remember my last trip to Paris. My last trip to Paris will always be remembered by me.
Andrew deleted the emails. The emails were deleted.

One way of spotting the passive voice is whether the following verb forms appear in the sentence:  a form of "to be" + past participle = passive voice.

The forms of the verb "to be" are: is, are, am, was, were, has been, have been, had been, will be, will have been, and being. A past participle is the form of a verb which often ends in -ed, which can also act as an adjective. (You can read my article on irregular verbs and past participles!).

Here are some examples, with the passive "to be" + past participle form in bold.

After their campus had been invaded by the ducks, none of the students felt safe again.

Ericka and Troy were discovered eating all our jelly snakes.

The park was littered with broken bottles and torn paper.

But keep in mind that not every sentence with a "to be" verb in it is passive. Debra was a good student isn't passive. You need to have that past tense verb in there too. Debra was tested and found to be a good student is passive.

The use of the word "by" in a sentence is also a clue to its being passive. The book was read by Ben.

So, now you know what the passive voice is and how to spot it. Understanding all this, and avoiding the passive voice, will help to make your writing more active, which is — in general — something to be desired. The active voice is more appealing, cuts out unnecessary words, is more direct, and easier to understand (see also, How To Write Clearly).

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Last modified on Saturday, 28 November 2015 08:11
English Language Skills (Denise)

English Language Skills (Denise)

I'm a syndicated puzzle writer, with 8 puzzle books to my name, including Word Searches for Dummies and Cracking Codes and Cryptograms for Dummies (with Mark Koltko-Rivera). I have a background in science and graphic design, and am a trained indexer. My favourite puzzles are cryptic crosswords. and my favourite books are murder mysteries and cookbooks. I am also a very keen knitter.

I write a blog all about puzzles, called Puzzling.

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