Welcome to the Write Right Podcast over the differences between passive and active voice.
Passive voice is demonstrated when the subject of the sentence is acted upon. Here are a couple of examples of passive voice. Notice how the first noun in the sentence is acted upon by the second noun in the sentence. Let’s look at this sentence: The boy was bitten by the dog. The dog is the one biting the boy; therefore, the second noun (dog) is the one acting upon the first noun (boy). Here is another example of passive voice: The brakes were slammed by Sally as the car rolled down the hill. Sally is the one who slammed the brakes; therefore, the second noun (Sally) is the one acting upon the first noun (brakes).
Active voice is demonstrated when the subject of the sentence is the actor. Here are a couple of examples of active voice. Notice how the first noun in the sentence acts upon the second noun in the sentence. Let’s look at the first example: The dog bit the boy. The main subject of this sentence (dog) acts upon the second noun (boy). Here is another example: Sally slammed the brakes as the car rolled down the hill. The main subject of this sentence (Sally) is the one who performs the action upon the second noun (brakes). Notice the transformation these example sentences underwent from the examples on the previous slide.
Writers often wonder if there is a prescriptive method for them to follow in order to identify passive voice vs. active voice. Well, Yes there is! Sentences that use passive voice will always include a form of “be” in verb phrases. These phrases will include words such as: am, is, was, were, are, and been. The phrase “by the…” is commonly seen within passive voice sentences as well. This phrase comes after the verb. The use of “by the” indicates that the action is performed on the subject, which makes the sentence passive.
There are a few reasons you should avoid passive voice in most academic writing. It often causes sentences to sound awkward. Active voice makes sentences more straightforward and easier for your audience to understand. Passive voice can also cause prose to seem flat and uninteresting. This is something you do not want. As a writer, it is your job to keep your audience engaged and interested in what you have to say.
Using the active voice gives you power as writer. This is because it creates clear and direct sentences. When the subject of the sentence is the primary actor, it will keep your sentences from becoming too complicated or wordy.
So, we have discussed several reasons why using passive voice is incorrect, but there are still certain exceptions. Passive voice can be used when the agent performing the action within a sentence is obvious, unimportant, or unknown. This is often seen within scientific writing. Passive voice is useful when the writer intends to postpone the mentioning of the agent until the end of the sentence or avoid mentioning the agent all together. Passive voice is also useful when the writer intends to highlight the action and what is acted upon rather than the agent performing the action.
Here is an example of a sentence that sounds better in passive rather than active voice. Active Voice: The dispatcher is notifying the police that three prisoners have escaped. Passive Voice: Police are being notified that three prisoners have escaped. **In this case, the passive voice makes sense because the agent (dispatcher) is relatively unimportant compared to the action (notified) and what is acted upon (police).
Here are a few more examples that further illustrate the difference between passive and active voice. Sentence 1: Active Voice – The committee is considering action on the bill. Passive Voice – Action on the bill is being considered by the committee. Which form of this sentence is correct? The active voice! Notice how is this form is more direct and less confusing because it focuses on the main actor (the committee). Sentence 2: Active Voice – I have damaged your bicycle. Passive Voice – Your bicycle has been damaged. Notice how the passive voice form of this sentence leaves you wondering who damaged the bicycle. In this case, the active voice would be correct because it is clearer and easier to understand.
Thank you for listening! I hope this podcast has given you a better understanding of the difference between passive and active voice. You should now feel comfortable in identifying, correcting, and establishing sentences that either exist in the passive or active voice.