Reducing the amount of passive voice in your writing will improve the impact of your work.
As used here, voice is the quality of a verb that indicates whether the subject of the sentence acts or is acted upon. The subject can be a person, place, thing, or even an idea.
The term active voice refers to a type of sentence or clause with an action verb, in which the subject acts, performs, or causes the action indicated by the verb.
Examples: Every day, my dog chews up my mail. The speaker thanked the audience. The tenor sang a song from a well-known Broadway show.
The term passive voice refers to a type of sentence or clause in which the subject is the (passive) receiver of the action indicated by the verb. The subject does not perform the action. Instead, the subject is acted upon. Such sentences deemphasize the importance of the performer of the action.
Passive-voice sentences add words and hide the “who”, changing the normal doer-action-receiver flow. This can make your text “muddy”, and it can interfere with direct and powerful writing. You may end up making the reader work harder to understand your intended meaning.
Examples: Every day, my mail is chewed up by my dog. The audience was thanked by the speaker. A one song from a well-known Broadway show was sung by the tenor.
Passive sentences may or may not contain an agent—who or what causes the action. The agent usually comes at the end of the sentence, after the word “by”.
Example of an agent: Every day, my mail is chewed up by my dog. Breakdown: my mail is the subject of the sentence; is chewed up is a passive verb; and by my dog is the agent. Note that the subject in this sentence is not the one doing the action of the verb.
Example with no agent: This paper was written last year. Breakdown: Who wrote the paper? We don’t know, because there’s no agent. This tends to be the most common form of passive-voice sentences—and is very ineffective.
Passive-voice sentence structure
The passive voice is often formed by using a form of the verb “to be” (e.g., is, was, were, have/has been, should be, ought to be, can be, will have been) followed by a verb in the past tense or a past participle (e.g., formed). An easy way to check for a passive sentence is to use the “zombies test”. If you can add the phrase “by zombies” after the verb and it still makes grammatical sense, it’s passive voice. (e.g., This paper was written by zombies).
Changing passive-voice sentences into active-voice sentences
Here are some simple steps that you can follow to make your sentence more active.
- Move the subject of passive sentence into the direct object location of the new active sentence.
- Remove the auxiliary verb form of “to be” from the main verb and change the main verb’s form as needed.
- Remove the object of the preposition “by” in the passive sentence.
Passive sentence example: Every day, my mail is chewed up by my dog.
Becomes: Every day, my dog chews up my mail.
Because it’s more direct, many, if not most, style guides and writers prefer the active voice whenever possible. However, passive voice may be the better choice when a) the performer of an action is unknown or unimportant; b) the writer wishes to emphasize the action of the sentence rather than the doer; or c) the writer wishes to use passive voice for sentence variety.
Your objective should not be to completely eliminate passive-voice sentences. But you should try to reduce using them as much as possible. Converting passive-voice sentences to active voice in your writing makes you think about who is doing the action. This discipline will improve the meaning you’re trying to convey and will improve readability. Bold writers don’t hide behind passive constructions.
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