Grammar Geek – Passive vs. Active Voice

Passive vs. active voice is something that writers talk about often but what is it?

Essentially, it refers to what part of your sentence has the action. Let me give you an example. Imagine your friend, John, just walked into the room and thrown his pencil onto the floor. You have two “players” in this activity: John and the pencil.

To describe this using “active” voice, you would make John the subject of the sentence.

  • Example:  John threw his pencil.

This is considered an “active” sentence because the subject of the sentence, John, completed an action, throwing a pencil.

To make this a passive sentence, you would put the pencil as the subject of the sentence. In that case, the sentence would read:

  • Example: The pencil was thrown by John.

John is no longer actively doing something in this sentence.

You can test for passive constructions by looking for “to be” verbs and the word “by.” If you have used both of those words, you’ve written a sentence in the passive voice. However, people often write in passive voice without using the word “by” and just using a “to be” verb.

  • Example: The gun was shot.

In this example, the “by” phrase is left off.

One way to check for passive voice if you haven’t used the word “by” is to read a sentence that has a “to be” verb in it aloud and then add “by zombies” at the end.

The example sentence would read: “The gun was shot by zombies.” This makes sense, so I know the sentence is written in passive voice, and I’d probably want to revise it to active voice.

But, there is a time and a place for passive voice. In my above example about the gun, you might want to emphasize the gun and not the shooter. In this case, passive voice is appropriate.

Please leave any questions you have about this in the comments below.

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