English verbs have many different features and can adapt themselves by using numbers and tenses, but one crucial feature is the use of voice. Voice refers to the relationship between the action and the participants of that action. One relationship is active voice, and the other one is passive voice.
Active voice is the more common option, and many English teachers push students to use that form because it sounds more substantial. However, there are a few instances when passive voice is appropriate.
Below are some helpful tips for understanding active voice vs. passive voice, along with examples to help you use both forms.
In active voice, the subject of the sentence performs or does the action. This makes the sentence sound strong and clear.
You simply use a regular, conjugated verb to form the active voice.
Here are some examples:
In the first example, the dog is the sentence subject. The dog did the action; it caught the ball.
In the second, the subject is “Nadia.” What does Nadia do? Nadia watches the soccer game. So, Nadia is the action taker in the sentence.
In the final example, “we” is the subject, and “will eat” is the active voice verb. What will we do? We will eat; we will do the action tomorrow.
An active voice sentence is straightforward, so it’s handy in most writing situations.
Passive verbs are also useful when you want to highlight the recipient of the action. You may not want to mention who is doing the action, don’t know who it is, or are not essential. Or, you just want the recipient to be the focus.
In the first example, we don’t know who found the body. Perhaps the police didn’t want to reveal a name yet.
In the second example, we don’t know who spread the rumor. Since we don’t know, we can use the passive voice.
In the third example, the important part of the sentence is the spider, not the person who discovered it.
Another everyday use of the passive voice is with signage. You may see notices that say, “Tickets are sold at the box office” or “Shoes are worn at all times.” Here, the passive voice sounds authoritative.
Passive voice can sound fancy, but you shouldn’t use it just for that, as if you rely on it, your writing will sound clunky and confusing. So, when you use a passive voice sentence, make sure you have a reason for doing so.
Also, keep in mind that specific disciplines prefer using passive voice. For instance, researchers and academics may prefer to use the passive voice in published articles. Journalists also use the passive voice if they need to conceal certain information or simply want to stress a particular part of the sentence.
You can practice switching sentences between active and passive voice when you're writing.
Who does the eating in this sentence? Javier. What gets eaten? The dinner. In this sentence, the subject is Javier, and the object is dinner. Since the subject does the action, it’s an active voice sentence.
So, how do we make this into a sentence using the passive voice?
Well, we change the verb; we’re using to be + the past participle of “eat.” which is eaten. When we do this, the dinner moves to the beginning of the sentence.
So we get the following: The dinner was eaten (by Javier.) - Passive voice.
When you change a sentence from active to passive, you don’t necessarily need the subject anymore. You can put it at the end, often with the preposition “by,” or leave it off altogether. So we could say, “The dinner was eaten by Javier” or, simply, “The dinner was eaten.“
How about we reverse it and go from passive to active voice?
Let’s take the sentence “Rachel was fired from her job.” - Passive voice
The passive verb “was fired,” and the object was “Rachel,” but it doesn’t have a subject. We know that someone fired her, but we don’t know who it is.
So if you want to switch from passive to active voice, you may need to add some information.
If we know who fired her, we could say, “The manager fired Rachel.” Now we have a perfect active voice sentence!
Don’t worry about confusing active and passive voice! It sounds complicated, but you’ll get the hang of it with a bit of practice. Just remember to look for who does the action and who receives the action. And most of the time, try to write in the active voice.
For more tips and tricks, check out the other grammar articles on our site. You’ll be an English pro in no time!