Active vs. Passive Voice

May 21, 2021

Definition: If you are active, you are doing something. In active voice sentences, the subject of the sentence is doing the verb. You’ve already studied this type of sentence without knowing it—most of the lessons in this module use active voice sentences.

The lady plays the piano.
The driver drove the car.

Hint:You’re using active voice whenever you use any of the tenses you learned about in this module.

PresentWe take a trip to Disney World every summer.
PastThey took a trip to Disney World last year.
FutureNoah will take a trip to Disney World once he saves enough money.
Present ProgressiveSylvia is taking a trip to Disney World with her family.
Past ProgressiveAngel was taking a trip to Disney World even though he liked Disneyland better.
Future ProgressiveSarah will be taking a trip to Disney World with her family next fall.
Present PerfectWe have taken several trips to Disney World.
Past PerfectBefore she visited Disneyland, Abby had taken several trips to Disney World.
Future PerfectBy the end of this year, Nancy and Jaimie will have taken five trips to Disney World!

Definition: If you are passive, something is done to you. In passive voice sentences, the subject is having the action done to it by something else. To form the passive voice, use a form of the helping verb to be plus the past participle of the main verb. The verb to be can be in just about any tense.

The piano is played by the lady. (is + played)
The car was driven by the driver. (was + driven)

Choose Active Voice Wherever You Can

When you write sentences in active voice, your writing is more engaging and moves more quickly.

The children climbed all over the jungle gym. Then they threw several balls in the air and dodged them.

Notice how your attention is on the actions of the children.

Take a look at the same sentences in passive voice:

The jungle gym was climbed by the children. Then several balls were thrown in the air and were dodged by the children.

Now your attention is on the objects, not the children. Notice how the structure of these sentences is awkward and clunky. When one of your sentences sounds awkward, check to see if you’re using passive voice. If you are, an easy fix is to use active voice instead.

Common Misconceptions About the Passive Voice

Misconception #1: It’s Never OK to Use Passive Voice

Many teachers discourage their students from ever using the passive voice, but sometimes it’s actually the better choice. It can be useful when you’re not sure who did the action or when you want to emphasize the object instead of the subject. It can also be effective if you want to slow down the action of your writing and focus on a scene. Occasionally you can use the passive voice to vary sentence structure in your writing, but don’t rely too heavily on this technique.

President John F. Kennedy was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald.

In this sentence, the emphasis is on the president’s assassination instead of the person who assassinated him.

Misconception #2: Using To Be Always Means You Are Using Passive Voice

Please don’t make the mistake of confusing the passive voice with other uses of the verb to be. As you learned earlier, to be can also be a helping verb in the progressive tenses or a linking verb.

Misconception #3: The Perfect Tenses Are Passive Voice

Another common misconception is that the present perfect and past perfect tenses are forms of passive voice because they use past participles. Similarly to the passive voice, overusing these two tenses can weaken your writing. However, when used correctly, these tenses can actually strengthen your writing. There are also times when the perfect tenses are the only correct choice.