(Use the Passive Voice Purposefully; Use the Active Readily)
1. Understand the Active Voice
A clause or a sentence appears in the active voice when its subject performs the action of the main verb. For example, in the sentence Lupita eats the apple, the subject Lupita performs the action of the verb eats. Therefore, the sentence is in the active voice. Study these additional examples, all showing the active voice in different tenses (subject in bold type, active voice verb in underlined type):
‣Tony attended the concert yesterday. (past)
‣The plane is skidding off the runway. (present progressive)
‣The ball falls to the ground. (present)
‣He will arrive tomorrow. (future)
2. Understand the Passive Voice
We use the word get or a to be-verb (is, are, am, was, were, etc.) and a past participle of a transitive verb to form the passive voice. That is, get or to be-verb + past participle = passive voice when the subject is acted on (not the doer of the verbal activity). For example, in the sentence The apple was eaten by Lupita, note the use of was (a to be-verb) and the past participle eaten. We have two of the three things we need to form the passive voice so far (to be-verb and past participle). Next we need the subject to be the thing acted on. It shouldn’t be the doer or actor. The subject apple is not the doer of the verbal activity eaten. Rather, it is acted on; it is the receiver of the verbal activity: the apple was eaten. Study these passive voice examples (note the passive verb—a to be-verb plus a past participle—in underlined type):
‣The plane was moved by the pilot. (past)
‣Officers are being called out in force. (present progressive)
‣Many students are told to stay home. (present)
‣Christianity has been practiced for thousands of years. (present prefect)
‣Tomorrow, the game will be played. (future)
‣Prajeet was being recommended at the time. (past progressive)
‣Some of us want to be hugged. (infinitive)
Digging Deeper into the Passive Voice
To really understand the passive voice, we must recognize two things:
- To appear in the passive voice, the sentence must have a past participle of a transitive verb (taken, spoken, witnessed, etc.), and the subject of the verb must be the receiver—the item acted on—of the verbal activity, not the doer. For example, take this sentence, Malcolm was cited for speeding. First, do we have a past participle? Yes, cited. What is the subject of sentence? Malcolm. And Malcolm is the subject of the verb was. Is that subject the thing or person acted on? Yes, Malcolm was cited. That example sentence is, therefore, in the passive voice.
- If we don’t have a past participle of a transitive verb, the sentence cannot be in the passive voice. Consider these additional examples:
‣Marvin was late yesterday.
(Active: Marvin is the subject, and we have no transitive verb to form the passive voice.)
‣Marvin was kissed by his wife.
(Passive: Even though the person Marvin is the subject, he is the receiver—not the doer—of the verbal activity, kissed. He was kissed; he didn’t kiss anyone.)
‣They are usually kicked out of the football match.
(Passive: The subject they received the action kicked out; they did not do the kicking out.)
Passive Voice Without the To Be-Verb
We can form the passive voice without a to be-verb by using the word get. For example, They could get robbed; He gets fatigued easily. And sometimes the to be-verb is implied and thus left out of the sentence: I am upset to hear a teacher discussed in such a manner; He doesn’t want his secrets discussed. Notice the to be-verb being is implied, in those last two examples. The full sentences would be thus: I am upset to hear a teacher being discussed in such a manner; He doesn’t want his secrets being discussed.
3. When to Use the Active Voice?
In most sentences, when you don’t need the passive voice for a particular purpose (see below) you should use the active voice. With the active voice, you will usually write clearer, shorter, more precise sentences. Use the active voice the way you usually make purchases with your credit or debit card; readily use it most of the time. Every time you write a sentence or a clause, decide who is doing what to whom. Then, most of the time, place the main actor (the doer of the verbal activity) as the subject of the sentence or clause, thus forming the active voice.
4. When to Use the Passive Voice?
Use the passive voice the way you usually make purchases with cash; use it only when it is required or when you feel it is the best choice. Consequently, we should use the passive voice when we need it, and we usually need it in these six situations, where we put the emphasis on the object—the thing or person acted on—not on the actor:
- When the thing, topic, or person acted on is more important than the actor or doer: Yes, “how to raise funds” will be discussed at the conference.
- When the identity of the actor is either unknown or purposely hidden (to absolve blame, to deflect responsibility, etc.): He was mugged; A mistake was made.
- “When the affected entity ought to come earlier in the sentence (e.g., when it is the topic of the preceding discourse),” as Steven Pinker contributed in his MIT talk.1 Let’s expound on this: When discussing a particular topic in one sentence and we move to the next sentence, we should place that same topic early in the new sentence. This allows a seamless continuation or flow and keeps the discussion focused on the main topic. Sometimes the passive voice is necessary to accomplish this. Consider this example:
Chelsea went to the gala with her new boyfriend, Alan. She was interviewed about a dozen times before she left. Notice Chelsea is the topic discussed in the first sentence. To continue discussing Chelsea in the second sentence, we place Chelsea (using the referential pronoun she) as the subject of the second sentence. But we need the passive voice to do it since Chelsea was interviewed; she is not the doer of the verbal activity.
- When the actor is placed at the end of the sentence for special emphasis: The red ant, attempting to scuttle away, was suddenly trapped in the spider’s gossamer web. A web of deceit it was.
- “When the passive simply sounds better,”2
Indeed, sometimes the passive voice just sounds better. Ruminate on these two examples:
Passive: Intricate decorations for the winter gala were hung from the ceiling. Active: The volunteers hung intricate decorations for the winter gala from the ceiling.
- As we discussed in section 4, we can use the passive voice to avoid the singular they, the sexist he, and the cumbersome he or she. For instance, this passive voice sentence avoids using a gender-specific personal pronoun: Everyone is required to bring identification. The alternative, the active voice, would be this: Everyone must bring his [his or her] identification.
Do the top grammar authorities agree on these rules for forming plurals and possessives?
New Fowler: ✓ Garner: ✓ Ed Good: ✓
Thanks you for your time. And do come back soon.
Richard Of Stanley,
Write. Write well. Move and direct people’s feelings.