Active and passive voice can be riddled with technical jargon, confusing learners of the English language rather unnecessarily.
A simpler version of learning how active and passive voice works is simply identifying the meaning of the words ‘active’ and ‘passive’.
Active generally refers to something or someone that is at the forefront of an action, whereby they are almost always performing an activity. Think of an athlete and how they are people of very few words. Their sentences would normally be short and snappy, such as ‘I ran the marathon’ or ‘I was disappointed with my performance.’
On the other hand, passive relates to something or someone that is withdrawn from any activity. They are the ones sitting and observing while taking no interest in the action. Here, imagine a politician. They’re going to be more expressive in their statements, taking as much time as possible to elaborate on their subject. Suppose a politician says ‘The policy was not approved by me’ or ‘The ballots have been counted’ – does this not sound more elaborative and perhaps even professional?
What is Active and Passive Voice Exactly?
In the active voice, the subject of the sentence does the action, whereas in the passive voice, the subject receives the action.
The term ‘voice’ here represents the relationship that a subject has with the verb of a sentence. So, when we say that ‘The runner runs’, we are referring to the person (a runner) as performing the action of running. This is an example of the active voice.
Alternatively, the subject of a statement can receive the action instead of performing it. For example, ‘The curtains were closed by me’ has the subject (me) placed in the last position while the object or the recipient (the curtains) of the action (closed) is placed in the first position of the sentence. Here, the limelight falls on the recipient of action in the sentence and not the subject or doer of the action.
What is the Difference Between Active and Passive Voice?
Think about the example of a sports star once again. When we’re working with the active voice, we’re referring to a sentence whose subject is doing a work.
We add an active verb with a subject to signify that this is in the active voice. The difference between verbs in the active voice and passive voice is that active verbs are livelier and more vigorous than their counterparts. They bring out a sense of immediacy because the sentence indicates a direct action.
Here are a few examples of active voice:
- The monkeys jumped from the roof.
- The pigeons flew to my window.
- He ate all of the cake.
Notice how all of these sentences have a subject + active verb + object.
In the first example, the monkeys are the subject; jumped is the verb where the monkeys have performed the action of jumping; and the roof is the object or the place that they’ve performed the action from.
In the second example, the pigeons are the subject; flew is the verb that shows what type of action they’ve performed; and my window is the place or object that they’ve gone to.
Active Voice Exercise: Try to identify the subjects, verbs and objects in the following active sentences.
- Janet ate the rice.
- Dinosaurs lived on the Earth.
- My sister will clean the house every day.
- Everyone cheered for us.
- My mother hated the food.
- We drove to the hospital.
- They vacuum and clean their house every fortnight.
- We are thinking of booking a wedding planner.
- Mirrin changed the sheets earlier today.
- The highschoolers were truants.
In the passive voice, the subject receives the action. We add verbs in their passive form to indicate that this sentence is in the passive voice.
Passive forms of the verb be sounds more distant and formal than the active voice. Generally, this results in longer sentences that’s more verbose than it is direct. This is why we typically use the passive voice in academic writing for the effect of sounding more scholarly.
The passive voice does not maintain a sense of immediacy as the active voice does. Instead, it often sounds more highbrow. Therefore, using these sentences in formal writings are more appropriate, but you should be using both active and passive voice in academic writings for sentence variation.
Here are a few examples of passive voice:
- Instructions will be provided by the examiner.
- The tennis match can be played by Matt.
- The whole town was destroyed by the flood.
Notice how all of these sentences have an object + be verb + past participle + by (preposition) + subject.
In the first example, instructions are the object of the sentence as it will be something done by the subject; the be verb are the words will be; the past particle is the word provided; followed by the word ‘by’ and the subject of the statement examiner.
In the second example, the tennis match is the object because it’s where Matt will be playing at; the be verb can be is added with the past particle of ‘play’ as played; and the sentence ends with the word by added to the subject of the statement Matt.
Passive Voice Exercise: Try to identify the subjects, verbs and objects in the following active sentences. (TBP)
- The entire building was designed by Arya.
- The pasta was devoured by my brother.
- The forest is inhabited by tigers and lions.
- In the evening, the movie will be watched by all of us.
- The song was beautifully sung by the band.
- The required texts will be provided by the lecturer.
- All books were purchased by the school.
- Fifty cupcakes will be made by the bakery.
- The Eiffel Tower can be visited by tourists at any time of the year.
- Every morning, the construction sites are checked by the safety regulators.
How to Change an Active Sentence to Passive
To understand grammar, you must see the patterns that emerge in its rules. When we change active tenses into its passive form, we generally abide by the rule of having a ‘to be’ verb with the past participle of an active verb. You will notice how synchronous this change is in the table below:
Change in Tense and Verb from Active to Passive Voice
Note: The underlined parts highlight the change that has taken place.
|Tense/Verb Form||Active Voice||Passive Voice|
|Simple Present||Keeps |
Ex. She keeps the room clean.
|>||Is Kept |
Ex. The room is kept clean.
|Present continuous||Is Keeping|
Ex. He is keeping the book.
|>||Is being kept |
Ex. The book is being kept by him.
|Simple Past||Kept |
Ex. I kept the chocolate.
|>||Was Kept |
Ex. The chocolate was kept.
|Past continuous||Was Keeping|
Ex. I was keeping it.
|>||Was Being Kept |
Ex. It was being kept by me.
|Present perfect||Has Kept |
Ex. She has kept the book.
|>||Has Been Kept |
Ex. The book has been kept by her.
|Past perfect||Had Kept |
Ex. I had kept her textbook.
|>||Had Been Kept|
Ex. Her textbook had been kept by me.
|Future||Will Keep |
Ex. He will keep his promise.
|>||Will Be Kept |
Ex. His promise will be kept.
|Conditional||Would Keep |
Ex. She would keep her word.
|>||Would Be Kept |
Ex. Her word would be kept.
|Perfect conditional||Would Have Kept |
Ex. I would have kept your bag.
|>||Would Have Been Kept |
Ex. Your bag would have been kept by me.
|Present Infinitive||To Keep |
Ex. I am to keep this homework.
|>||To Be Kept |
Ex. The homework is to be kept by me.
|Perfect Infinitive||To Have Kept |
Ex. The police was to have kept him under watch.
|>||To Have Been Kept |
Ex. He was to have been kept under watch by the police.
|Present participle/gerund||Keeping |
Ex. I am keeping the snacks.
|>||Being Kept |
Ex. The snacks are being kept by me.
|Perfect participle||Having Kept |
Ex. Having kept the promise, I was called a good friend.
|>||Having Been Kept|
Ex. The promise having been kept resulted in me being called a good friend.
Notice how all the tenses except for simple past and simple present have the word ‘be/been’ added in the middle when changed to passive voice. Remember that simple present and past tense just adds the words ‘is/are’ and ‘was/were’ respectively whereas any other tense has the ‘be/been’ placed before the past participle of the verb.
When Should You Use the Passive Voice?
The use of either voice depends on what type of text you’re writing or speaking. Sometimes, you need to use the passive voice because the circumstances demand it while other times, you may simply use it alongside active voice to create varied sentences.
Here are the times when using passive voice is more appropriate than using active voice:
- When you do not have to mention the doer of the action because it is obvious who they are/was/will be.
Ex. The rubbish hasn’t been collected. (It is obvious that trash collectors do this job and therefore, it is not necessary to mention the performer of this action)
- When you don’t remember or know who had done the action.
Ex. The Prime Minister was assasinated. (You do not know who had killed the person so you can’t mention them)
- When ‘Everyone’ or ‘People’ or a group of people is the subject of the sentence:
Ex. He is suspected of murder. (Everyone collectively suspect this person of murder so it’s not needed to mention the subject here)
We also use passive voice in academic writing since it produces an effect of seeming more scholarly and profound. However, be careful to not go over the top when using it in your writing. Using passive voice too much in your work may seem more pretentious than intellectual.