Knowing the difference between active and passive voice is very important for anyone who has to write. The difference is easy to see in these examples:
Active voice: Donald told an enormous lie.
Passive voice: An enormous lie was told by Donald.
Note that in the active voice, the actor (Donald) is the subject of the sentence. In the passive voice, the thing acted on (the lie) is the subject of the sentence. The meaning of the two sentences is exactly the same, but the style is quite different. For one thing, the passive voice sentence is two words longer. The active voice sentence is more vigorous and direct.
The passive voice always consists of a form of the verb “to be” and the past participle of another verb. The passive voice can occur in any tense: is told (present), was told (past), will be told (future), is being told (present progressive), etc.
In passive voice sentences, the actor always appears in a “by phrase,” which can be eliminated. We call a passive voice in which the actor is not mentioned a truncated passive
Writing that has too many passive voice constructions is wordy and plodding. Unless you have a good reason to use the passive voice, prefer the active voice. Here are some good reasons for choosing the passive voice:
- The actor (doer) of the action is unimportant or unknown.
That house was built in 1930.
Several garages were broken into last night.
- The actor is common knowledge and does not need to need mentioned.
Barak Obama was elected twice.
- We want to de-emphasize the actor’s role in the action.
Lies were told.
Try this exercise:
Change the following sentences from active to passive voice:
- The Republican Party celebrated Donald’s expulsion.
- Politicians tell thousands of lies every election.
- Marco’s win shocked everybody.
- Barack Obama’s election thrilled the world.
- Ted’s ascendency terrified the world.
Change the following sentences from passive to active voice (note that in some cases you have use your imagination to supply the actor):
- Five typos were discovered and corrected by the editor.
- Colbart’s marriage proposal was rejected by Matilda.
- The manuscript was written by hand.
- No one was found hiding in the cloakroom.
- Mort was arrested for loitering.
- Donald’s expulsion was celebrated by the Republican Party.
- Thousands of lies are told by politicians every election.
- Everybody was shocked by Marco’s win.
- The world was thrilled by Barack Obama’s election.
- The world was terrified by Ted’s ascendency.
- The editor discovered and corrected five typos.
- Matilda rejected Colbart’s marriage proposal.
- The author wrote the manuscript by hand.
- The janitor didn’t find anybody hiding in the cloakroom.
- The police arrested Mort for loitering.