Grammar: Active versus Passive Voice

Posted December 20, 2014 by Kathy Davie in Author Resources, Editing, Grammar Explanations, Self-Editing, Writing

It’s a fashion thing. Back in the day, reports and studies were written up in the passive voice and were drier than dirt to read. Today, the preference is for active voice, and it does make for a more direct, clearer “story”.

I hate to weasel out of finding another word, but an active voice sentence is, well, more active. It feels livelier, brighter whereas a passive sentence will make you think about closing your eyelids for a quick snooze.

The experts do say, however, that it’s best to combine active and passive to keep a balance, to give readers a chance to rest up between actions. Besides, not everything in a story is action-able.

Grammar Explanations is…

…an evolving list of the structural rules and principles that determines where words are placed in phrases or sentences as well as how the language is spoken. Sometimes I run across an example that helps explain better or another “also known as”. It means the self-editing posts are never complete. There’s always a new term someone, somewhere, uses to describe a part of grammar. There’s always a better way to explain it, so it makes quicker and/or better sense, so I would appreciate suggestions and comments from anyone… With which areas of grammar do you struggle?

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Definition: The voice is the verb, and your choice of verb tells the reader if the subject is acting or if s/he is being acted upon.

For what it’s worth, this distinction between active and passive voice applies only to transitive verbs.

Rule: There are two types of voice used when building a sentence: active and passive.

Active Voice
…is good for:
Focusing on the person or object performing the action and creating a livelier, more interesting sentence that is generally easier to understand – Jason washed cars.
Rule: Uses an action verb with the subject performing that action.
to eat to mail to sing to remove
The man must have eaten five hamburgers.

Marilyn mailed the letter.

Bears live in the woods.

At each concert, the soprano sang at least one tune from a well-known opera.

Asbestos abatement teams will remove large chunks of asbestos-laden material from the hallways on the second and third floors.

Passive Voice
…is good for:
Focusing on the person or object receiving the action, focusing on the action – Cars were washed.

It also helps provide variety within the report or story. There’s only so much we, we, we a person can take!

Rule: Always use to be + a past tense verb.

Reversing the word order so that the subject is being acted upon creates a passive sentence.

This is a sentence style to be avoided for the most part. It’s clunky and less direct, making it more difficult to determine what is being said. Which does make it perfect for disclaimers as used by government, lawyers, the military, corporate jerks, etc., who are seeking to avoid responsibility for something. Naturally, there are exceptions, see below.

Hamburgers are being eaten by the man.

The letter was being mailed by Marilyn.

At each concert, at least one tune from a well-known opera was sung by the soprano.

Large chunks of asbestos-laden material will be removed from the hallways on the second and third floors by asbestos abatement teams.

It can be useful in the following instances:
Rule: Doer of the action is unknown, unwanted, or unneeded
The ballots have been counted.

Sometimes our efforts are not fully appreciated.

The president was praised for meeting with the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Rule: Action is to be emphasized and not the doer of the action
The high-jump record was finally broken last Saturday.

A suspect was questioned for sixteen hours by the police.

Rule: Recipient is the main topic
The victims of Hurricane Katrina were abandoned in the aftermath.

Some new laws were passed by lawmakers.

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