Dave’s WW of EU: Passive Voice vs Active Voice

And here we are… the dreaded passive voice. This particular little subject is a personal favorite of mine for two reasons: (one) Many people inaccurately identify something as passive based off inaccurate assumptions, and (two) pretty much everyone I know declares the passive to be evil.

Trust me… it has its place. Infrequent as that may be, the passive has its place.

A quick lesson on voice first: Voice is a description of the relationship between the verb and the arguments (subject, objects). Sorry, I know that makes very little sense, but in truth, voice alone isn’t all that important. The kind of voice (active or passive), however, is quite important.

Active Voice: a subject that is the doer of the verb takes an active voice verb.

Examples:

  • The dog ate the cow.
  • I walked to the park.
  • In the grand scheme of things, learning the difference between passive and active voice will never be a life and death situation.

Passive Voice: a subject that is the target of the verb takes a passive voice verb.

Examples:

  • The cow was eaten by the dog.
  • The park was walked to by me.
  • A life and death situation will not be caused by learning the difference between passive and active voice.

Digging Deeper

So all that is well and good. But why is it important? A couple reasons:

  1. Passive tends to create longer and more confusing sentences, such as The park was walked to by me.
  2. Active tends to be very concise and simple, (I walked to the park.).
  3. Passive sentences hide the doer of the action. And this is the critical definition.

Hiding is often done when hiding is necessary. For example, if you lost a million dollars, it sounds much better to say “a million dollars were lost” than “I lost a million dollars.” Journalism typically uses this tactic to protect themselves from making accusations that could be seen as libelous (see… there’s a valid place for the passive).

We’ve all been taught never to use the Passive. That rule is as old and irrelevant as the “don’t end a sentence with a preposition” rule. Passive is perfectly legitimate and useful in certain situations. The point is that you shouldn’t use it exclusively or even frequently. The passive tends to be boring and, when over-used, causes premature death (evidence is lacking on that theory, but most editors would agree with it).

Identifying Voice

You can identify the voice of a sentence by figuring out the direction of the flow. Imagine an arrow that goes from the doer, to the action, to the receiver of the action. If that arrow flows to the right, you have an active sentence. If it flows to the left, you have a passive sentence.

Passive sentences often use a “by [doer]” phrase to identify the doer. For example: The bank was robbed by thieves. If you find a sentence that looks passive, you can ALWAYS identify it by either looking for a “by [doer]” phrase or by adding one.

Example:

  • The bank was robbed (by the thieves).

Remember that a “by” phrase does NOT mean the sentence is passive. For example:

  • I walked by the dog eating a cow.

This sentence is not passive. The “by” is not associated with the doer of the action. Instead, the “by” in this sentence is functioning as a preposition. A key difference and one a lot of people miss.

Passive sentences also ALWAYS use a form of the verb “to be” (such as “was robbed”). Just remember that the “to be” verb does not guarantee that the sentence is passive; it’s just a useful clue to identify passive sentences. In my experience, many people see passive voice anytime a sentence has a “to be” verb included. That’s simply not the case. Look for the “by [doer]” phrase or see if you can add one.

Fixing the Passive

If you find you overuse the passive voice (a common problem), you can fix it by flipping the sentence. The verb of a sentence functions as the central point with the doer on one side and the receiver on the other. Just flip them.

Example:

  • The bank was robbed by the thieves (passive) = The thieves robbed the bank (active).
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