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Active and Passive Voice The Writing Center Brigham Young University English has two voices, active and passive, which describe the relationship between the subject and verb of the sentence. Voice indicates whether a subject acts or is acted upon. Understanding the definition, use, and effect of both active and passive voice will enable you to write more powerfully (328). Active Voice When a sentence is in the active voice, the subject performs the action of the verb. Active constructions are more direct, dramatic, and clear because the active voice identifies the actor. Active voice often uses fewer words than passive voice. Example: The terrorists stole the missiles from the government. [The subject terrorists does the acting; they stole.] Passive Voice In the passive voice, the subject receives the action or is acted upon. The verb’s action is performed “by” something other than the subject. Example: The missiles were stolen from the government by terrorists. [The subject missiles is acted upon by terrorists; they were stolen. The stealing was done by terrorists.] The actor might not be mentioned: Example: Decisions were made quickly. [The subject decisions is acted upon; the decision-makers are not mentioned.] Note: Passive voice is typically avoided because it can confuse the meaning of the sentence. The construction obscures who acted, causing problems in identification. Appropriate Use of Passive Voice Sometimes the passive voice is appropriate. Published scientific research often uses the passive voice to relate data because the actor or researcher is not as important as the findings. Passive is best used when: The actor is unknown or there is little need to know: Passive Example: The lock was broken sometime after four o'clock. [Who broke the lock is unknown.] Passive Example: In 1899, the year I was born, a peace conference was held at the Hague. [The doers of the action––holders of the conference––don’t need to be emphasized because they are less important than the event.] Attention should be focused on the action rather than the actor: Passive Example: Oxygen was discovered in 1774 by Joseph Priestley. [Emphasis is on what was done.] Note: “Be” verbs (is, are, was, were, has been, etc.) linked to a past participle create passive voice. Watching for them can help you spot which voice you’re using (Trimble 56). Continued on back Working with Voice As a general rule, avoid using passive voice. John Trimble argues that passive voice lends itself to being vague and difficult to understand. He shows how much less impressive and inspiring The Declaration of Independence would be had it been written in passive voice: Our seas have been plundered, our coasts have been destroyed, our towns have been burnt, and the lives of our people have been destroyed. In this version the actions are still abhorrent, but no one is held responsible. The framers wanted Parliament and other revolutionaries to know that King George was responsible. Thus the active voice: He [King George III] has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people. (Trimble 57) These words are concise and put the blame squarely on the actor, King George III. The active voice more effectively motivated the audience to revolution. Converting Voice Most sentences in passive voice can be easily converted to active voice. Passive: Fiberglass surfboards are often broken by large waves. Active: Large waves often break fiberglass surfboards. Converting passive to active puts the emphasis on the actor. Moving the actor to the beginning of the sentence and rewording the idea changes the voice. This provides more clarity and helps to orient the reader. Bibliography: Faigley, Lester. The Brief Panguin Handbook. New York: Pearson, 2003. Lannon, John M. Technical Communication. (Costom edition for Brigham Young University) Boston: Pearson, 2003. Trimble, John. Writing with Style. New Jersey: Prestice Hall, 2000. Williams, Joseph. Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace. New York: Longman, 2003. Jessica Stuart, summer 2005 Based on a handout by Paul Corriveau, March 2000