English speakers communicate in two “voices”:
- the active voice
- the passive voice
The active voice focuses on the person or thing doing the action.
Example | Active
- “These students finished their homework well in advance.”
The focus of the action is on the students — the people who completed the action themselves (“finished their homework”).
The passive voice is when the focus is either:
- on the receiver of the action; or
- on the doer of the action, but much less so than in the active
“to be” verb + past participle of verb
Examples | Passive
- “The homework was completed on time by the students.”
- “to be” verb = “was”
- past participle of verb = “completed”
- “The carrot was eaten.”
- “The shirts were cleaned”
- “She was taken to the hospital”
Passive Voice (no object)
Sometimes the doer of the action (usually indicated with “by”) is not included in the object position (after the verb) of the sentence, because the doer of the action is either:
- implied; or
- already known
Example | Passive (no object)
- “The homework was completed on time.”
Example | Passive (object vs. no object)
- Passive: (w/object): “Michael Jackson was considered the King of Pop by all of this fans.”
- Passive (no object): “Michael Jackson was considered the King of Pop.”
Examples | Active vs. Passive
- ACTIVE: “The nurse, not the doctor, examined the patient’s skin infection.”
- PASSIVE (w/object): “The patient’s skin infection was examined by the nurse.”
- PASSIVE (no object): “The patient’s skin infection was examined.”
- ACTIVE: “He cooked the food last week.”
- PASSIVE (w/ object): “This food was cooked by the chef last week.”
- PASSIVE (no object): “This food was cooked last week.”
- ACTIVE: “Her husband cleaned the entire house yesterday.”
- PASSIVE (w/object): “The house was cleaned yesterday by her husband.”
- PASSIVE (with no object): “The house was cleaned yesterday.”
Here, the importance of the person who did the action (the husband) goes from:
- strong in the active voice
- to weakened in the passive with object
- to non-existant in the passive
Notes about the Passive Voice
- The passive voice can only be used with verbs that take an object or else the sentence doesn’t make sense.
- The doer of the action in the passive is often not mentioned.
- If the doer of the action is mentioned, it is preceded by a “by” (see examples above).
Academic and Formal Writing
Sometimes the passive voice is unavoidable–it may be the only choice you have to express what we want to say.
In academic and formal writing, it is more powerful and illustrative to use the active voice. Professors expect to read sophisticated, active sentences in your papers.
*Elemental English Writing Tip!*
If you are in school in America, go through your academic papers and see where you can change an passive voice to active without changing the meaning. This will have a very positive effect on the strength and sophistication of your communication!
Changing Focus with Word Order
Note how you can change the focus of your sentence by changing word order.
- “The dog is under the blanket.”
- “The blanket is over the dog.”
Here, the same facts are presented–there is a dog and a blanket–but the focus is on the dog in the first sentence and on the blanket in the second sentence.