What is the passive voice? What are the differences between passive and active voices? And why is the passive voice discouraged in English? We will answer all of these questions and more.
The passive voice is a controversial topic among English linguists, professors, writers, and learners. If you’ve ever taken a creative writing course, your teacher may have expressed an opinion about using the passive voice. Generally, the passive voice (especially in writing) is thought to be a weaker, lesser form of English communication.
First, let’s take a look at the precise definition of the passive voice:
Definition of Passive Voice
The passive voice is a sentence construction in which the subject of a clause or sentence becomes the thing that is acted upon. In other words, the verb form changes so that the thing that is acted upon comes first, while the acting agent comes second (or doesn’t appear at all).
Passive vs. Active Voice
To understand the passive voice better, let’s look at a few examples:
All of these sentences utilize the passive voice. Though the passive voice is common, the active voice is the most traditional (and preferred) form of English sentence construction. This is because the active voice is more purposeful and easier to understand.
In the active voice, the subject performs the action and appears at the beginning of the sentence. Alternatively, the passive voice is useful in speech or writing when you want to obscure the acting agent or highlight the thing that is acted upon.
By altering the verb form, word choice, and word order in the sentences above, we can change them to the active voice:
As you can see, there are some distinct differences between the active and passive voice. In the passive voice, we generally see longer sentences, greater frequency of “to be” verbs, fewer concrete details, and more emphasis on the thing that is acted upon.
However, these are not the only differences. There are some specific rules that help us distinguish the passive voice from the active voice in English.
Clauses or sentences in the passive voice usually use some form of “to be.” However, this does not mean that every sentence containing a “to be” verb is passive. For example, let’s look at the following sentences:
All of the sentences above use a form of “to be,” but remain in the active voice. These are active sentences because the subject performs the action and appears at the beginning of the sentence.
Identifying the Passive Voice
Passive Voice Grammar
Now that you have a better understanding of the differences between the active and passive voice, it’s time to talk about grammar. Though the verb form may change, passive voice construction looks very similar in every tense:
Receiver of Action + “To Be” Verb (or “Get”) + Past Participle + (optional) Performer of Action
Now let’s take a closer look at how passive voice construction looks in various verb tenses:
Resources for Using Passive and Active Voice
While your teacher might discourage you from using the passive voice in your writing, there are times when it is useful. As a result, it is important to know the different functions that both the passive and active voices serve. To help you practice identifying the passive voice, here are some free passive and active voice resources: