Active and Passive Voice
A verb can be used in either active voice or passive voice. When the subject acts, the verb is in the active voice.
I saw the culprit.
The van hit the garbage can.
John repaired the computer.
Benedict Arnold took a bribe.
When the subject is acted upon, the verb is in the passive voice.
The culprit was seen by me.
The garbage can was hit by the van.
The computer was repaired by John.
A bribe was taken by Benedict Arnold.
Passive verbs contain a form of "to be." Often the sentence contains a prepositional phrase beginning with "by." The subject receives the action; it does not do the action.
PASSIVE: Lucy was followed by a stray dog.
ACTIVE: A stray dog followed Lucy.
PASSIVE: The poem was read by Miss Farris.
ACTIVE: Miss Farris read the poem.
We must learn to identify active and passive voice.
Writing is more exciting and powerful in the active voice. We try to use the active voice as much as possible. Here are examples of active and passive voice:
- The work had been completed by Mr. Tran.
- Longfellow had been disappointed by the tragedies.
- Virginia was raided by Benedict Arnold.
- Mr. Tran had completed the work.
- The tragedies had disappointed Longfellow.
- Benedict Arnold raided Virginia.
- We were led through the old house by the guide.
- Longfellow's first wife was mourned by him for many years.
- The traitor's opponents were browbeaten by him in his arrogance.
- The guide led us through the old house.
- Longfellow mourned his first wife for many years.
- The traitor browbeat his opponents in his arrogance.
- The supplies were delivered by Max to the shop.
- The idea was presented to the class by Miss Farris.
- Max delivered the supplies to the shop.
- Miss Farris presented the idea to the class.
We see that the passive voice can be wordy and indirect. It can confuse the reader and tends to be dull. However, the passive voice does have a purpose. We use the passive voice in order to leave something unsaid. When the doer is unimportant or unknown, or when we want to emphasize the receiver of the action, we use the passive voice.
- The class was totally confused.
- All the crops were destroyed during the drought.
- The national anthem had been sung.
- The prototype had been tested. (doer unknown)
- The Articles of Confederation were rejected.
- The Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution.
- The disaster had been averted. (doer unknown)
We must learn to recognize active and passive voice. Tell whether the verb in each sentence is active or passive voice.
- A young man rode a donkey.
- A donkey was ridden by a young man.
- A vulture was sighted by the bird watcher.
- The bird-watcher sighted a vulture.
- Longfellow wrote "The Village Blacksmith."
- "The Village Blacksmith" was written by Longfellow.
- Initially, Longfellow's marriage proposal was rejected by Fanny Appleton.
- Initially, Fanny Appleton rejected Longfellow's marriage proposal.
- The state was treating all citizens equally.
- All citizens were being treated equally by the state.
- One citizen was denied by the state the right to vote.
- The state denied one citizen the right to vote.
We identify active and passive voice in the sentences above:
- The verb is active. The subject (man) acts.
- The verb is passive. The subject (donkey) is acted upon.
- The verb is passive. The subject (vulture) is acted upon.
- The verb is active. The subject (bird watcher) acts.
- The verb is active voice. The subject (Longfellow) acts.
- The verb is passive voice. The subject ("The Village Blacksmith") is acted upon.
- The verb is passive voice. The subject (proposal) is acted upon.
- The verb is active voice. The subject (Fanny Appleton) acts.
- The verb, was treating, is active voice. The subject (state) acts.
- The verb, were being treated, is passive voice. The subject (citizens) is acted upon.
- The verb, was denied, is passive voice. The subject (citizen) is acted upon.
- The verb, denied, is active voice. The subject (state) acts.