Passive Voice and Active Voice

Get the Hang of When and How to Use the Active and Passive Voices

Identifying passive voice and active voice is easy, but sometimes, people may find it difficult to do so. This article is aimed at removing any doubts that you may have about them.
Penlighten Staff
Last Updated: Mar 14, 2018
Portrait of a young man and woman
Many people fumble when it comes to identifying voices in the English language. They know which one to use, but they don't know which one they're using. Confusing? Why don't we just dive straight into what this article is all about. Here, we will discuss the two voices in English, namely passive voice and active voice.

Structure of a Sentence
A sentence generally has 2 parts - the subject and the object. The subject is the focal point of the sentence and the object is the latter part of the sentence. Since the subject is the focal point in a sentence, it means that the sentence should be about the subject. The subject performs the verb of the sentence and the object completes the sentence. The subject answers the question about what, while the object answers the questions what.

E.g.: In this sentence, "The boy hit the dog." the boy is the subject who has performed the verb hit and the dog is the object. If you want to be more clear, ask yourself, "What is the sentence about". It is about the 'boy' hitting something. And 'what' did the boy hit? He hit the 'dog'. Hence the boy is the subject and the dog is the object.

What is Active Voice
Active voice is that voice in which the subject performs the doing verb and the sentence revolves around it.

E.g.: The driver stopped the bus.
It is very clear that the driver (subject) performed the verb (stopped) in this sentence. What is the sentence about? It is about the 'driver' stopping the 'bus'. The subject does something which affects an object. Hence it is a sentence in active voice.

Active voice is generally preferred in written and spoken English. This is because of the following reasons.
  • It keeps the sentences short.
  • It immediately conveys what the sentence is about.
  • It helps in faster and easier comprehension.
  • It helps in easy identification of the subject in a sentence.
What is Passive Voice
In passive voice, the real subject becomes the object and the object become the subject. You'll understand better with the example below.

E.g.: The bus was stopped by the driver.
Now, this sentence has the same 'meaning' as its original in active voice. But, note that in the passive voice, the 'bus' has become the 'subject'. Now as a subject, it is required to perform some action. In this sentence, the only verb is the 'stopping' of the bus. However, this action was not performed by the subject - the bus. It was performed by the driver, who we can see, has become the object. So, the subject remains idle and does nothing. In short, the subject remains in a passive state. Hence, it is called a sentence in passive voice.

Using passive voice is generally discouraged in both, written and spoken English. Let us see why,
  • It makes the sentence unnecessarily long.
  • It beats around the bush and takes a while to get to the point.
  • Easy comprehension may not always be possible. Sometimes, the sentence may become too long and the reader may forget the beginning by the time he reaches the end.
  • The reader is forced to read to the end of the sentence to know what the subject is, i.e., what the sentence is really about.
However, in some cases, it may seem wise to use passive voice instead of active. Like in fiction writing where the writer wants to create an atmosphere of suspense. Even business writing uses passive voice to sound more professional, polite, and politically correct. Other cases include:
  • When you want to explicitly get your point across, confident that the person knows who you are. E.g.: In a letter of warning from a bank to a defaulting credit card holder, it would be better to say "Your account will be closed." rather than "We will close your account."
  • If you genuinely do not know what/who the subject is. E.g. "The water was left running." makes more sense (when you do not know who left it running) than "Someone, I do not know who, left the water running."
Exercise
Given below are some sentences from which you must identify the voice. The answers are given right below, so you can check them. You can also try to convert them into the other voice.
  1. I ate the pie.
  2. Trevor swam in the pond.
  3. The bag was picked up by Katie.
  4. The vase was broken by Jack.
  5. The lock was picked by the thief.
  6. Sandy cut his birthday cake.
  7. The rat nibbled on the cheese.
  8. The doorman was shouted at by Mr. Freeman.
  9. Amy plucked the green leaves.
  10. Cherries were discarded by Dorothy.
Answers
  1. Active
  2. Active
  3. Passive
  4. Passive
  5. Passive
  6. Active
  7. Active
  8. Passive
  9. Active
  10. Passive