Active and Passive Voice

Writing in the active voice makes the meaning clear while keeping sentences from becoming complicated and wordy. Sentences using passive voice are not necessarily wrong, just less effective than active voice. Also, passive voice tends to be wordy.

Locating Active and Passive Voice

You can differentiate active and passive voice by the subject's role and the way the verb looks. Consider these two questions:

1. Who or what is actually doing the action?

In active voice, the subject of the sentence is the one doing the action.

Robert Hills [doer of the action] designed the Washington Monument to honor George Washington.

In passive voice, the subject of the sentence is not the one doing the action: it will receive the action instead. The one doing the action may appear in a prepositional phrase or not appear in the sentence at all.

The Washington Monument was designed by Robert Mills [doer of the action] to honor George Washington.

The Washington Monument was designed to honor George Washington. [doer not named]

2. What does the verb look like?

Active voice verbs can appear on their own and do not require "be" as a helping verb. When an active verb does have "be" as a helping verb, the main verb will end in "ing."

Robert Hills designed [no helping verbs] the Washington Monument to honor George Washington.

The state of Michigan is using ["be" helping verb and main verb ending in "ing"] the Pure Michigan campaign to enhance tourism.

Passive voice verbs will always have "be" as a helping verb, and the main verb will never end in "ing." Most often, the main verb will end in "en" or "ed."

The Washington Monument was designed ["be" helping verb but main verb ending in "ed"] to honor George Washington.

The Pure Michigan campaign is being used [two "be" helping verbs and main verb ending in "ed"] by the state of Michigan to enhance tourism.

Two TVs were stolen ["be" helping verb but main verb ending in "en"] from the local gas stations last night.

Changing from Passive to Active

To switch from active voice to passive voice, place the doer of the action into the subject position and remove the passive "be" helping verb.

Passive Sentence: The Dollywood theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, is owned by Dolly Parton.

Passive Sentence Changing to Active: The Dollywood theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, is owned [remove the passive "be"] by Dolly Parton [move doer to the front of the sentence].

Active Sentence: Dolly Parton owns the Dollywood theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.

Using Passive Voice for a Purpose

You can use the passive voice for several important reasons.

Use the passive voice to focus on the receiver of the action (direct object).

Reed-Kellogg sentence diagrams were invented to help students learn grammar.

The focus is on the diagrams and not on the people who invented them.

Use passive voice when you don't know who did the action, don’t want to assign blame, or don't want to emphasize the doer of the action.

Two TVs were stolen from the local gas stations last night.

The passive voice is common and deliberate in technical or scientific writing in order to remove first-person "I" or mention of "the researcher."

Participants were asked to sign consent forms before the study began.

If you find yourself using the passive voice too often, find ways to reword with third person and active voice.

Participants signed consent forms before the study began.