Passive and Active Voice

Written by Lauren Carter | Last updated:

I hope you’ve been having a lovely week so far. I was watching a TV show the other day and one of the characters said “the decision has been made”. As the language nerd I am, it made me think about the concept of what’s called “grammatical voice” and how this would be super relevant to share with all my beautiful readers like you.

What is grammatical voice?

Grammatical voice is a linguistic term that refers to the relationships between words in a sentence. More specifically, it refers to the relationship between the action (i.e. the verb) and the participants (i.e. the nouns that are doing the action or having the action done to them). If you’re at all familiar with basic grammar terms, you can think of the participants as the subject and object in a sentence.

When we think of grammatical voice in English, two main types come to mind: active and passive voice.

What is active voice?

Simply put, active voice means that the subject is the first thing in the sentence and is the one doing an action. This is the most common grammatical voice, and most of the sentences we say use this voice.

In its simplest form, the sentence structure for active sentences is subject + verb + object. Here are some examples:

  • The dog bit the woman.
  • She completed the report.
  • The principal made the decision to permanently close the school.

And here’s the breakdown of the word classes:

  • Subject: the dog, she, the principal
  • Verb: bit, completed, made
  • Object: the woman, the report, the decision to permanently close the school

Now, in contrast, let’s look at passive voice.

What is passive voice?

Passive voice refers to when the focus is on the participant who gets the action done to them rather than the doer of the action. Although this isn’t the most straightforward grammatical construction, we often use it, especially in formal writing. In its simplest form, the sentence structure for passive sentences is object + verb + subject. In other words, the object moves to the subject’s position and the subject occurs after the verb. Here are the same examples from above, but I’ve turned them into passive sentences:

  • The woman was bitten by the dog.
  • The report was completed by her.
  • The decision to permanently close the school was made by the principal.

Can you see the difference? The important part here is that each verb is followed by the word “by” and then the subject. If I simply changed the subjects and objects around, we wouldn’t get passive sentences. In fact, we’d get a garbled mess! Here’s those example again, but with just the subjects and objects switched:

  • The woman bit the dog. (Grammatical, but the meaning is different)
  • The report completed her. (Grammatical, but makes no sense)
  • The decision to permanently close the school made the principal. (Grammatical, but makes no sense)

Okay, so now we understand the difference between active and passive voice, but what’s the problem with it?

What’s wrong with using passive voice?

Firstly, there is never anything wrong with any of the language choices we make. Language is simply a tool we use to communicate with others. With that said, however, there are some reasons why you might consider changing passive sentences into active ones.

One of the main reasons to consider changing a passive sentence into an active sentence is because of a thing called “markedness”. Passive sentences are considered marked sentences, so they’re harder to understand.

Let me explain.

What is markedness?

Language has default rules, and these are considered “unmarked”. Unmarked rules are easier for our brains to process because they’re the most basic form of a rule. Here are some of those rules in English:

  • The word order is subject + verb + object, and sentences are positive by default: She ran 10 kms last weekend.
  • Most base words are positive by default: happy, satisfied, possible
  • Most gendered words are male by default: actor, prince, lion

These sentences and words are easy to understand because they’re the most basic form. We don’t have to know any other specific rules to understand what these mean.

On the other hand, in linguistics when we have non-typical or non-default rules, we call this markedness or marked forms. This just means that we add something (or mark it) to denote a special meaning. Here are some examples:

  • The word order is different in passive sentences: The 10 km race was ran by her last weekend.
  • We add specific letters to words to show negative meaning: unhappy, dissatisfied, impossible
  • We add specific letters to word to show they are feminine: actress, princess, lioness

So, when something is marked, it means there’s another thing our brain has to process. And THIS is where the problem is.

When we use a marked sentence structure or rule, our brain has to work extra hard to work out what’s happening and to apply the rule. When we use passive sentences, which are marked sentences, our brains have to work sooooo much harder to actually process the meaning.

When should I use passive voice?

Now, I’m not saying you should never use passive sentences ever again. On the contrary, I’m saying use them, but use them for a good reason and when it’s appropriate for your audience or for the sentence. There are two main functions of passive sentences:

  • They mask the doer, so you don’t have to be explicit about who did the action if you don’t want to or don’t know.
  • They emphasise the object rather than the doer.

As a result, your text becomes more formal and impersonal. Now, if that’s what you’re going for, then that’s great. But if not, then you probably want to consider changing passive sentences into active one.

How do I change passive sentences into active sentences?

The first step when trying to change anything in life is to first notice it. If you can’t notice something, then how can you expect to change it? Here are those examples again from before. What do you notice?

The dog bit the woman.The woman was bitten by the dog.
She completed the reportThe report was completed by her.
The principal made the decision to permanently close the school.The decision to permanently close the school was made by the principal.

The first thing that I notice is that all the passive sentences use the structure “was + verb + by”. This is by far the best way to notice a passive sentence. But sometimes the tricky part is that a sentence doesn’t have this part. Well, why would that be? Let’s have a look at the passive sentence examples again:

  • The woman was bitten (by the dog).
  • The report was completed (by her).
  • The decision to permanently close the school was made (by the principal).

All of these sentences are completely grammatical without the part in the brackets. So, to work out if a sentence is passive or not, you should:

  1. Look for the “was + verb + by” structure; or
  2. Try to insert “by someone” or “by something” after the verb if its not already there.

Here are some examples:

  • Lauren was driven to work (by someone).
  • The alarm was sounded (by someone) when the door opened.
  • The school was built (by someone) in 2010.

Now that you can identify passive sentences, changing them into active ones is simple. Here’s what you need to do

  1. Confirm the sentence is passive using the above as a guide.
  2. Identify the doer of the action (i.e. what comes after “by”) and put that at the start of the sentence.
  3. Identify the verb (i.e. the action), put that next, and change the form to make it grammatical.
  4. Identify the participant being affected (i.e. the person or thing before “was”) and put that next.
  5. Identify the left overs and include them in the sentence.

Here’s an example:

  • Original passive sentence: Lauren was driven to work (by someone).
    1. Confirm it’s passive: yes, I can add “by someone” or “by my friend” after the verb.
    2. Identify the doer: someone / my friend
    3. Identify the verb: driven
    4. Identify the participant: Lauren
    5. Identify the left overs: to work
  • Active sentence: My friend drove Lauren to work.

The challenge

So my friend, this week’s challenge is to be curious about the language you and others use everyday. Start listening and tuning yourself into whether a sentence is active or passive. Once you work out whether it’s active or passive, ask yourself why that form was used. Was it to be more formal? Or to mask the doer? Or to make the doer explicit?

When you’re speaking and writing, start trying to notice your own style and whether the passive sentences you use are appropriate for your audience or purpose. If it’s not aligned with your audience’s needs or your purpose, then consider changing it to an active sentence using the steps above.

Remember, don’t beat yourself up if you realise that you use a lot of passive sentences but they’re not super appropriate for your audience. Contrary to popular belief, you can’t just unlearn something you’ve never been taught about in the first place! 😜

Small and consistent steps will help you become more aware of your own language use and help you achieve effective communication with your students, clients, community members, and everyone else for that matter. Try it out! You’ll be glad you did. 🤗