Which picture do you find more compelling? The player driving to the basket for a layup? Or a ball going through a basket? I assume that nearly everyone is more interested in the picture on the left than the one on the right. We are social animals, compelled by human stories and drama. To have a player scoring is far more interesting than a ball falling through the net because we don’t know who scored the point or how hard they strived to score.
Writing in active voice is the picture on the left; writing in passive voice is the picture on the right.
What is it?
In active voice the actor does the action. In passive voice the actor receives the action. It’s the difference between creating a sentence that tells the reader who did what, and in that order, or creating a sentence that tells us what was done by whom.
The basic structure of an English sentence follows the pattern subject-verb-object. In active voice the actor is in the subject position of the sentence. In passive voice the actor is absent or placed in the object position of the sentence.
Active Voice: The player drives to the basket.
Passive Voice: The basketball was shot.
All passive voice contains a be verb (am, is, are, was, were, be, been, being). But not every sentence with a be verb is passive. The previous sentence is not passive because the be verb links an adjective (passive) to a noun (sentence).
Passive sentences may also have a prepositional phrase at the end to indicate who the actor is:
Passive Voice: The basketball was shot by a player.
But if this sentence is about the picture at the top, then it infers who that actor is since no one is present in the picture. Yet another problem.
Write in Active Voice!
The difference between active and passive voice is simple really—the difference between putting the actor at the beginning of the sentence or at the end of the sentence. But the effects on your writing are dramatic.
Take a mundane sentence as an example: Ice cream was reimagined by Ben and Jerry.
The actors sit at the back of the sentence. What normally would sit in the object position of the sentence after the verb (ice cream) finds itself in the spotlight at the beginning of the sentence. Extra words crowd the sentence (by and was). Also, the compelling verb (reimagined) loses its punch in the passive voice. The -ed crumbles the word into a phantom of its true self.
What about this instead? Ben and Jerry reimagined ice cream.
This sentence has umph and power. It’s forceful and compels the reader forward. The actors sit at the front of the sentence and act out the action of the sentence. The verb sings now.
Also, passive voice should be avoid because it is not emphatic and often a sign of an author who doesn’t know what to say. Or, sometimes people want to hide responsibility for some action or veil their lack of knowledge and so turn to passive voice to do so. Don’t come off as an indecisive writer shirking responsibility. Change your passive voice.
Put the actor at the beginning of the sentence. Activate your verbs. Eliminate the extra words. Passive voice will weigh down your sentences.
Choose answers that are in active voice
Test makers love to foil students with passive voice answer choices. Once you add this to your checklist of possible errors on the test, it will be easy to notice and easy to narrow down your choices. Whether you are dealing with GMAT Sentence Corrections or SAT Improving Sentences, testmakers will definitely test this skill, so be on the look out. Eliminate all answer choices in passive voice. You will start getting more answers correct if you do.
But don’t hate passive voice–sometimes it’s appropriate
Passive voice tends to get a bad rap. Yes, it does add extra words to sentences. Yes, it does make verbs less compelling. Yes, it does arrest the forward movement of sentences. And yes, it does result in tentative sentences.
Yet sometimes we need passive voice.
For one, sometimes we actually don’t know who the actor is. When an action has taken place, and we want to talk about it, then we need to use passive voice. For example:
The ball was thrown through the glass window.
At times, we would rather emphasize the action and not the actor or to emphasize the receiver of the action. This is a time to use passive voice:
The houses, the cars, the trees, the entire small town was demolished by the storm.