Elizabeth O'Brien

Hello! I'm Elizabeth O'Brien, and my goal is to get you jazzed about grammar. 

Passive Voice & Active Voice

Action verbs can be written in the passive voice or the active voice. (That was a passive sentence!)

The word "voice" here doesn't refer to the sound you make when you read these verbs aloud. You probably already knew that, but I thought it might still be worth pointing out.

The "voice" that a verb is written in tells us whether the subject is performing the action (active) or receiving the action (passive).

* Notice that both voices contain an action. You can only use action verbs in these sentences. (That means that linking verbs are off the table, folks.)
Quick Refresher

Subjects tell us whom or what a sentence is about.

Direct objects are nouns or pronouns that complete a transitive active verb. (That sounds complicated, but check out the lesson below, and you'll get it!)

Active Voice --> The Subject Performs the Action

These types of sentences are the most common in our everyday life. Take a look at the example sentences below and notice that the subjects are performing the action and the direct objects are receiving the action.
Sue took the test.

James made a sentence diagram.

My grandma made a scarf.
Here is a sentence diagram of an active sentence. The red arrow shows us that the subject performed the action.
sentence diagramming
In all of those sentences, the subject is the DOER of the action.

That is the only criteria for something to be written in the active voice, so all of those sentences are ACTIVE.

Passive Voice --> The Subject Receives the Action

Now look at these example sentences.

Notice that the subjects are not performing the action and there are no direct objects.

What are the subjects doing in these sentences if they're not performing the action? They are RECEIVING the action!
The test was taken by Sue.

A sentence diagram was made by James.

A scarf was made by my grandma.
Here is a sentence diagram of a passive sentence. It looks the same as the active sentence, doesn't it? The red arrow is there to show you the direction of the action in the sentence.
sentence diagramming
In all of those sentences, the subject is the RECEIVER of the action.

That is the criteria for something to be written in the passive voice, so all of those sentences are PASSIVE.

Many times the doer of the action is written in a prepositional phrase (by Sue, by James, by my grandma).

However, passive sentences don't need to include the doer of the action. Notice that the sentences below don't tell us who performed the action.
A test was taken.

A sentence was diagrammed.

A scarf was made.
Also notice that those sentences sound really lame.

Which should you use?

The active voice is stronger, snappier, and more direct than the passive voice. It highlights the doer of the action. Use the active voice in your writing as your default.

Use the passive voice when...
  • You don't know who performed the action.
    My car was stolen.
  • You want to highlight the receiver of the action rather than the doer of the action. Steven Pinker says, "The passive is the better construction when the done-to is currently the target of the reader's mental gaze." You can see him explain this with an example from Oedipus Rex in this YouTube lecture.
    The house was demolished by the storm.
  • Your writing is technical
    The hydraulic test was performed to ascertain
    the chemical properties of the liquid in Joe's mug.

The End

Okay, now you know everything about the voices of verbs, right? :) You should seriously consider learning about sentence diagramming if you want things to get even more awesome.

In fact, check out these links to learn about diagramming verbs in the active voice and verbs in the passive voice. Psst! You might also find the page on passive verbs helpful.
Elizabeth O'Brien from Grammar Revolution

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