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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:

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 networks.

    Here is another example:

    1. A different engineering protocol was designed for the associates. (Passive)
    2. Floor technicians designed a different engineering protocol to help their associates.(Active)

  • Using the Passive Voice Deliberately

    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 piece.

    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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