The Active vs. Passive Voice
What is the difference between the active and passive voice? In English, the passive
voice is a type of sentence construction that makes the grammatical subject the
recipient and not the initiator of the action. Consider the two following sentences:
1. Canada is being invaded by Mexico. (Passive voice)
2. Mexico invades Canada. (Active voice)
In these sentences, Mexico is the initiator of the action and Canada is the recipient of
that action. However, in the passive version, Mexico becomes part of a past participle
and Canada becomes the subject of the sentence. In the active version, Mexico is the
initiator of the action and the grammatical subject of the sentence.
Generally, the passive voice is formed when a form of the verb "to be" is used in
conjunction with a past participle. A past participle is defined as a verb form that usually
ends in "-ed" although there are exceptions to this rule. Here are a few examples:
ACTIVE FORM / PASSIVE FORM
thrive / has thrived
cross / were crossed
decide / was decided
drive / have driven
It's important to note that the active form of a verb does not always need to be in the
present tense. It's possible to have a sentence that uses the past tense of a verb in the
active voice, such as:
Joe drove Susan to the park.
The passive version of this sentence would be:
Susan was driven to the park by Joe.
Reasons to Avoid the Passive Voice
Using the passive voice is not technically a grammatical error. The passive voice is a
style. However, the passive voice usually weakens the power of a sentence by making it
unnecessarily complex or confusing. The active voice is direct and clear. It also usually
makes sentences much easier to read.
The passive voice frequently confuses readers because the subject becomes unclear.
Consider this example:
1. Advertising campaigns were being launched.
Who launched the advertising campaigns? Where were they launched? Here is a better
version of this sentence:
1. The marketing firm launched the advertising campaigns across social media
Here is another example:
1. A different engineering protocol was designed for the associates. (Passive)Using the Passive Voice Deliberately
2. Floor technicians designed a different engineering protocol to help their associates.(Active)
Writers should try to use the active voice whenever possible. However, in some cases
using the passive voice may be the best choice for the overall style and flow of the
If the receiver of the action is more important than the initiator of the action, the passive
construction is best. Here are examples:
1. The woman was hit by a train.
2. Hosni Mubarak was deposed by the Egyptian people.
3. The computer database was hacked.
In each case, the writer must decide what usage makes the most sense for the style
and intent of the larger piece. If the sentence is too difficult to understand in the passive
voice, writers should choose the active voice.
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