It is Evil and How to Recognize It.)
Two "voices" occur in English
grammar: active voice and passive voice. The difference is
subtle at first, but it's easy to master once the grammarian
understands the basics. Examine the subject and the
main verb in the two sentences below:
The boy hit
(B) The ball
was hit. (Or, "The ball was hit by the
In sentence A, we might ask ourselves,
what does the hitting? The answer is the subject,
boy. That subject is actively performing the verb; it is actively "doing" the
verb hit to a direct object
(the ball). This virtuous sentence is in active voice.
In sentence B, we might ask ourselves
what is the subject? (ball.)
What is the subject doing? (Nothing.) The subject is not hitting
anything else. So who exactly is doing the verb to
hit? It is not clear unless we stick a prepositional
phrase "by the boy"
on the end of the sentence. The subject is passively
sitting, doing nothing, while some outside agent performs
the action (hitting). Since the subject of the sentence is
passive grammatically, this sentence is passive
Note: Sometimes the passive
voice sentence is necessary when the speaker wants to
the agent or obscure what occurs. For instance, a governor
up for reelection might say, "In the last election,
taxes were raised over the course of the year." The
passive voice sentence hides the agent. It would be uncomfortable
for him to tell potential voters, "In the last election,
I raised taxes over the course
of the year." In
that last sentence, the one doing the action is painfully
clear! This type of situation is one of the few times that
form proves useful, albeit in a somewhat deceptive way I
discourage. You can also use passive voice to focus the reader’s attention on specific words or for variety’s sake.
In most other cases, it is better
rhetoric to use active voice. It is a better choice for several
(1) Active voice sentences
are often more concise than passive voice. Expressing the
same idea in passive voice frequently takes 30% to 40% more
punched Ali and dodged the uppercut.
(Active voice--8 words)
Ali was punched by the fighter,
and then an uppercut was dodged by him. (Passive voice--14
words, about 40% longer)
In the last generation, the
family built a new house and raised a new brood of children.
(Active voice: 17 words)
In the last generation, a new
house was built by the family, and a new brood of children
was raised by them. (Passive voice--25 words, about
(2) Passive voice requires
more "weak" words. It uses abstract words
is /am /are /was /were
the definite article (the),
and prepositions like by
and of. These
are dull and colorless compared to concrete nouns, powerful verbs,
and vivid adjectives. Good writers try to avoid these
weak words and replace them with strong words.
However, passive voice often traps
writers. To make clear who is doing what, writers using
passive voice must either tag unwieldy phrases at the
of clauses, such as "by so-and-so," or they must
leave out this phrase and let the sentence become unclear.
The airplane was flown to Bermuda
(by the pilot).
The crackers were eaten (by
In the moonlight, the tango
was danced (by the couple).
verbs and the prepositions do not add much to the sentence
in terms of color. You could express the same idea in active voice with less length, but no lost content:
The pilot flew the airplane
The puppy ate the crackers.
In the moonlight, the couple
danced the tango.
Remember, the heart of your sentence
beats in its strong verbs, concrete nouns, and vivid
Prepositions and articles can become dead weight. If you understand
that, your writing will be more direct and powerful
prepositions and articles clog your sentences. Using active
voice consistently is one way to ensure that doesn't
(3) The passive voice clause
can be confusing or unclear, especially in long sentences.
My car has been driven to Dallas.
(By whom? By the speaker? By
a car-thief? By the teletubbies?)
Sixteen thousand calories were
consumed in one sitting.
(Who is doing this monstrous
act of dietary vandalism?)
Five FBI agents entered the
room, and the terrorist was plastered against the wall.
(Does that mean the five FBI
agents plastered the terrorist against the wall? Or
does it mean when the five FBI agents entered the room,
the terrorist had plastered himself against the
wall? Or did someone else entirely plaster the terrorist
against the wall before the FBI arrived? It is impossible
to tell with passive voice structure in the last clause.)
However, the author frequently doesn't
know who did the action either.The agent doing the action
might truly be unknown.
A woman was mugged last night
in Las Vegas.
My diary has been stolen!
In sentences like these, it is difficult to assert whether it would be better to leave the passive voice (which in this case is fairly concise), or to add active voice structure (which in these cases, adds extra length). When in doubt, stick with active voice.
An assailant mugged a woman
last night in Las Vegas.
A thief stole my diary!
voice often leads to awkward or stilted writing, especially
in academic arguments in which the student dons a "pseudo-scholarly"
When a reason is to be considered
by readers for an argument that has been made by a writer,
it is fitting that their analysis be based upon the latest
If consensus cannot be reached,
compromises should be made, and then negotiations
be undertaken by both parties with arbitration
done by an outside listener.
Ugh! What lousy sentences! It hurts
my head to read them. These sound more like
"scholarese" rather than useful, direct, rhetorical
exhortations. If sentence after sentence appears in this
twisted format, the writer will drive the reader insane
with his contorted, artificial syntax. Nobody speaks that
way, so why write that way?
(5) Linguistic studies show
that native English speakers are better able to remember
material they read in active voice than the same material
in passive voice. Something about the English speaker's
mind remains geared toward a "Subject-Verb-Object"
pattern. Passive voice sentences somehow derail that mental
process of retention. If you want your readers to remember
what you write, use active voice. If they better remember
the material you spent so much time writing, you have a
better chance at creating an argument that will stick with
them and change their way of thinking.
Three Warning Signs
of the Unholy Sentence Construction (Passive Voice)
Ask yourself three questions to identify the evil sentence. If the sentence fails all three rules, you spot the dreaded passive voice, cleanse your paper from its infernal taint by converting the sentence to active voice:
Verb Test: Look for helping verbs, especially forms of the verb "to be"
in the sentence, such as is/
am/ are/ was/ were/ be/ being /been/ have/ had /has?
(Passive voice clauses usually have or imply one.)
Zombie Test: Could one insert the phrase "by zombies" after
the verb? If so, would the sentence still make grammatical sense?
If so, you might have passive voice. For instance, "the
dog was fed" (by zombies).
3. Agency Test: In the case of action verbs, identify the subject
and the main verb(s) in the clause. Does the subject sit passively while some outside agent does the action to it? If so, it's passive voice.
Passive Voice Exercise:
Egad! Some grammatical vandal has
converted E. B. White's active voice sentences into passive
voice structure. Rescue his writing! Convert the passage to
active voice, and compare the two.
One summer, along about 1904, a
camp was rented by my father on a lake in Maine, and we were
taken there for the month of August. Ringworm was gotten from
some kittens, and Pond's Extract had to be rubbed on our arms
and legs night and morning, and a canoe was rolled over in
by my father with all his clothes on; outside of that the
vacation was thought to be a success, and from then on it
was thought that there was no place like that lake in Maine.
It was returned to summer after summer--always on the first
of August for one month. Since then a saltwater man has been
made out of me, but sometimes in summer I am made to wish
for the placidity of a lake in the woods by the restlessness
of the tides and the fearful cold of the sea water in the
afternoon and evening, which is blown across by the incessant
wind. A few weeks ago this feeling was experienced by me so
strongly that a couple of bass hooks and a spinner were bought
and the lake that used to be visited by us was returned to
by me for a week's fishing to be done and for old haunts to
--adapted from "Once
More to the Lake," by E. B. White.
(Forgive, me, Mr. White,
for the stylistic blasphemy I have made of your work.)
Convert the following to active voice
and hear how much easier it is to understand!
My dating life has been ruined
by my new room mate, Joey. Joey's not a rude guy, or anything.
Far from it, he's actually friendly and good-natured. Women
are driven from my life by his lack of house cleaning. Our
apartment is the social equivalent of a cancerous tumor. When
the building is entered by one of my dates, the first object
that is noticed by her is that a trashcan is moldered in by
an apple half-eaten by someone. The edge of the television
is drooped over by a slice of week-old pizza. She is buzzed
at angrily by a swarm of flies, before a pile of unwashed
socks is settled back down on by them. Perhaps those socks
gleamed white in some distant age, fresh from K-Mart, but
no longer. Visitors are nauseated by the smell; the coup
de grace is administered by that part. When the apartment
is entered by a woman, the girl is fought back against by
the apartment. Invaders are driven off by Joey's slovenliness
far more effectively than any security system. Sure, small
talk will be made by the girl for a while, whose nose is wrinkled
up by her. Sure, a drink or two will be had, and the bottle
and glass eyed suspiciously for unidentifiable stains. The
problem is that the apartment is never stayed in long by her,
and my phone calls are never returned by her afterward. A
new room mate is needed by me. Otherwise, my love life will
be destroyed by Joey.
Click here to download
a PDF handout discussing the same material.
Click here to download
a PDF handout with a passive voice exercise.