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Writing Program

Active and Passive Voice

Paul Battles, English

All writing has "characters" and "action." Good writing will indicate clearly who does what. For example:

  1. Dr. Jones [character] determined [action] that the wreckage belonged to the Titanic.
  2. Coach Riley [character] trained [action] his players.
  3. I [character] compiled [action] this exciting handout for you.

These sentences make the characters and actions clear so you know who does what.

"Determined," "trained," and "compiled" are what we call "active verbs."

The Dangers of Passive Voice

  • Missing Information
    Sentences employing passive voice often leave out the characters. For example:
    1. It was determined [by whom?] that the wreckage belonged to the Titanic.
    2. The players were trained [by whom?].
    3. This exciting handout was compiled [by whom?] for you.
  • Wordiness
    Sentences employing passive voice use more words to convey the same information. For example:
    1. (Passive) It was determined by Dr. Jones that the wreckage belonged to the Titanic. (13 words).
      (Active) Dr. Jones determined that the wreckage belonged to the Titanic. (10 words).

Signs of Passive Voice

Two things indicate passive voice:

  1. The presence of the "to be" verb (are, is, was, were, has been, being, to be).
  2. The presence of a past participle (e.g. determined, trained, compiled).

For example:

  1. 1) It was ["to be" verb] determined [past participle] that the wreckage...
  2. 2) The players were ["to be" verb] trained [past participle] by...

Note: Sentences may contain a "to be" verb without using passive voice, in which case they indicate a state of being:

  1. I am happy
  2. David was going

As a rule, passive voice forces the reader to work harder because it reduces clarity and economy of expression. Most readers will give up.

The Test for Passive Voice

To determine whether a sentence employs passive voice, plug in the word following the "to be" verb (is, am, are, was, were, be, being, been) into the following sentence. If you end up with a sentence that makes sense, you have passive voice. [Note: some verbs are phrasal, like "give up" or "put down."]

Now I have ______ [it/her/him] [to it/her/him].

  1. Original Sentence: It was determined.
    Test Sentence: Now I have determined [it]. (yes, we have a passive voice).
  2. Original Sentence: David was going.
    Test Sentence: Now I have going [it]. (no, we don't have passive voice).
  3. Original Sentence: The players were trained.
    Test Sentence: Now I have trained [it]. (yes, we have passive voice).
  4. Original Sentence: We are taking a course.
    Test Sentence: Now I have taking [it]. (no, we don't have passive voice).

Exercise I: (do in teams or individually):

The following paragraph exhibits excessive use of passive voice. Revise the paragraph by:

  1. First, circling all instances of the "to be" verb (is, was, has been, were, etc.).
  2. Second, determining whether each instance of the "to be" verb constitutes passive voice (run it through the test above).
  3. Third, for those instances of passive voice, finding an active verb to replace the passive verb.
  4. Fourth, determining in the instances where the "to be" verb does not indicate passive voice whether an active verb might replace it anyway.
  5. Finally, re-writing the paragraph in full on a separate sheet of paper.

     A ghost was seen on the third floor of the library last week, when the library was about to be closed for the night. Odd noises were heard, a chill was felt, and then it was said to appear coming out of study carrel. It asked if the exam was being given tomorrow, and if its notebook had been found yet? Screams were heard down on the first floor, and the situation was investigated quickly. A student was found sprawled out in front of a study carrel, surrounded by papers and an old notebook. The notebook had been opened to a page where notes were written from October 27. After some investigation, it was found that the notebook was from 1903, and had belonged to a student who had died on October 27, 1903, on the third floor of the library, while he was studying for a chemistry exam. The cause of death was determined to be frustration.

Exercise II (do individually)

Take a single paragraph of a paper you wrote earlier, either for this course or for another course here at college. Revise this paragraph by:

  • First, circling all instances of the "to be" verb (is, was, has been, were, etc.).
  • Second, determining whether each instance of the "to be" verb constitutes passive voice (run it through the test above).
  • Third, for those instances of passive voice, finding an active verb to replace the passive verb.
  • Fourth, determining in the instances where the "to be" verb does not indicate passive voice whether an active verb might replace it anyway.
  • Finally, re-writing the paragraph in full on a separate sheet of paper.