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Passive Voice And Active Voice

You might have been instructed by your English teacher not to write in passive voice. Most of you know that passive voice in sentences is something which you should avoid. However, very few actually define it or recognize it. Verbs are said to be either active or passive. In active voice, the relationship between the subject and the verb is straightforward and clear, while in passive voice, the subject is acted upon by some other agent. Active voice sentences are more helpful as they are less wordy and avoid weaker words such as, is, am, were, was, being, been and so on. As active voice helps the readers understand and remember what you write, it is advisable to use active voice. Passive sentences can be vague and confusing in, especially when used as long sentences. Linguistic experts have argued that people understand and remember materials written in active voice more than the ones written in passive voice. All this does not mean that passive voice is inherently wrong. It can be used when the speaker wants to hide the agent or even in a mechanical process to hide subjectivity. We do find an overdose of passive voice in sentences by educators, military writers to avoid the responsibility for the action occurred.

Passive Active Voice

Distinguishing Active And Passive Voice

In an active voice, the subject will do the action. Active voice is the straightforward way of saying a specific thing as in the sentence,

  • ‘Steve loves Amy’. Here the subject, ‘Steve’, is doing the action. In passive voice, the target of the action is promoted to the subject position as:
  • ‘Amy is loved by Steve’.  Here, the subject has changed to ‘Amy’, though she is not doing any action. There is a misconception that all the sentences which contain ‘to be’ are in passive voice though it is not true. Let us see the example,
  • ‘I am holding a pen’ This sentence is in active voice and is using the verb ‘am’ which is a form of ‘to be’. The passive voice of that sentence would be ‘the pen is being held by me’. In this sentence, you must take note that the pen is not doing anything or it is not taking a direct action.

Using Passive Voice

  • It is true that passive voice is not the best way to frame your sentences. It can appear awkward and vague. Passive voice is usually wordy and replacing the passive sentences with active sentences can tighten your writing. But, there are times politicians famously used passive voice to deliberately make it ambiguous or to hide the person who takes the action. ‘Mistakes were made’ – famously said by ‘Ronald Reagan
  • Other examples of passive voice which is associated with politics include, ‘bombs were dropped’, ‘Shots were fired’.
  • Passive voice is often used when you are not sure of who is taking the action as you cannot name the person. It can be seen in crime reports as a security guard might say: ‘The store was robbed’. This is written in passive voice as nobody knew who the robber is.
  • Passive voice is sometimes used in fiction when you want to highlight something which is central to the story. Framing sentences in passive voice in fiction may make more sense. For e.g., ‘The cookies were stolen’ instead of using ‘Somebody stole the cookies’.
  • Passive voice is effective when you want to create a sense of mystery in the sentence. Even scientists write in passive voice as they want to provide a sense of objectivity to the writing. A sentence which says, ‘The data suggest that the mutation caused cancer’ gets rid of the subjectivity instead of saying, ‘We believe that the mutation caused cancer’.
  • Passive voice is also helpful in describing a mechanical process in which the information regarding the process are much important than the identity of the person who takes responsibility for the action as in the following example, ‘The first coat of primer paint is applied immediately after the acid rinse.’

Identifying Passive Voice And Converting Into Active Voice 

A clue to identifying passive voice in sentences is to look out for sentences using ‘was’ as in the following sentences

  • ‘The theme that was most dealt with by the 16th Century poets…’
  • ‘His death was regretted.’

Once you make out that the sentences are in passive voice, try rewriting the sentences in active voice. Rewriting passive sentences in active means that one of the two objects becomes the subject while the other one remains the object. The object which you want to transform into subject should be the one which you want to put the focus on. Go through the following example,

  • A letter was written to me by Rita (Passive voice) Or
  • I was written a letter by Rita (Passive voice) Or
  • Rita wrote a letter to me. (Active voice)

Using Active Voice Constructions

  • Writing active voice means framing sentences where the subject does the action. E.g., I threw the ball, You are making too much noise, Ben will eat popcorn and watch a movie tomorrow evening.
  • In these sentences, the subject performs the action of the verb and the sentences are punchy, direct and make it very clear as to who is doing what.
  • Creative writing always encourages active voice as such sentences have energy and directness, both of the qualities which keep the reader clear about the idea.
  • Sentences in the active voice are also less wordy than those sentences in the passive voice. Active voice is important as cutting unnecessary words always improves the quality of writing, irrespective of whether it is fiction and non-fiction.

Always use the active voice when you want to make your sentence clear, simple, direct and easier to read. If you are not confident about your writing, using active voice would be an effective way to provide life to a dull piece of work.

Active and passive voice sentences have their own advantages and shortcomings. It is up to the reader to have a clear idea of which voice to be used where. While creative writing encourages active voice, passive voice is favored in scientific writings and crime reports. However, remember that the heart of your sentence is its strong verbs and clear description. Make sure that whatever you write has the right set of articles, verbs and nothing extra creeps into your sentence formation. And the let the situation decide what voice you use.

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