You may have heard the phrases “active voice” and “passive voice” many times throughout your educational career, but may not know what they actually mean. It took quite a while for me to learn this skill; I got a crash course in passive voice when I received a 37% on an essay in 10th grade because I unknowingly wrote my whole essay in passive voice. I’ve learned quite a bit since then, so I’m here to share my wisdom with you!
When you write with passive voice, the subject of the sentence receives the action of the verb. Recognizing a passive sentence is pretty easy once you get the hang of it, because they all follow the same basic pattern. The pattern goes like this: [subject] + [“to be” verb] + [past participle]. Let me break that down a little bit for you.
An example would be, “The man was bitten by the zombie.”
So, as you can see, the subject comes before the verb. The man isn’t actively doing something, he’s just receiving the verb.
In the active voice, however, the pattern goes the opposite way. The subject should be doing the action, not passively receiving it. So in this case, the active form would be “The zombie bit the man.” In this version, the subject is performing the action-- zombie is actually doing the biting. Sometimes, there isn’t even anything acting on the verb, like when you say, “The girl was hit.” In this case, you should specify what or who hit the girl in order to make the sentence stronger and more specific. Another fun trick is that if you can add “by zombies” to the end of a sentence, it’s in passive voice. So the sentence “the book was written (by zombies),” is passive. We don’t want zombies doing anything, especially not writing books! Basically, using active voice is stronger, more specific, and concise.
Here are some guidelines for recognizing whether a sentence is active or passive:
While active voice is usually stronger, this isn’t always the case; sometimes, passive voice is necessary or preferred. Sometimes there truly is no better way to phrase a sentence, or it sounds really awkward and forced without using a “to be” verb, especially when it comes to using “is.” Also, in scientific or medical writing, passive writing is usually preferred. However, some key words to look out for that should raise a red flag include: am, is, are, was, were, be, being, to be, and been. If you see any of these words in a sentence, try to find a more active verb to take its place.