Active and passive voice

By Mary Morel

The active voice is more direct and vigorous than the passive.
With the active voice, you learn ‘who’ or ‘what’ is responsible for the action at the beginning of the sentence. In other words, when the subject acts, the verb is active.

She wrote the letter.

With the passive voice, you either learn at the end of the clause or sentence who is responsible for the action or you aren’t told at all.

The letter was written by the manager.
The decision was made.

The passive is appropriate:

  • For typical situations

Robots are used for repetitive action.

  • To avoid direct responsibility

A mistake was made.

  • When who performed the action of the verb isn’t known or is irrelevant

The decision was made.

  • For emphasis

The yellow car was destroyed by the bus. (not the blue car)

How to identify the passive voice

To identify the passive voice:

  • Find the verb and ask ‘who or what performed the action? — if the ‘who or what that performed the action’ is at the beginning of the sentence, the sentence is active
  • Look for the word by, which is often an indication of the passive. (The action was performed by management.)
  • Look for extra verbs in the sentence structure —  is found, are found, was found, were found, will be found, have been found, should be found. This won’t always work as the verb may be part of a verb tense (We are making progress.)

Change the passive into the active voice

You can change the passive to the active by:

  • Changing the word order
    Passive: The memo was sent by the manager.
    Active: The manager sent the memo.
  • Supplying a ‘doer’ for the verb
    Passive: The method was ruled out.
    Active: The manager ruled out the method.
  • Replacing a passive verb with an active one
    Passive: The heated water is sent into the pipes.
    Active: The heated water flows into the pipes.

Test yourself

Are the following sentences active or passive?

  • The first meeting of the society was held in the blue room.
  • The project is expected to cost $70,000.
  • The decision was made by management.
  • A potential client liked our presentation.

The first three are passive and the last one is active. The first three could be rewritten as:

  • The society held its first meeting in the blue room.
  • The engineer expected the project to cost $70,000.
  • Management made the decision.

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