grammarNOW! Tip of the Week: active/passive voice

active/passive voice

A verb is in passive voice when the action described by the verb is done to the subject rather than the subject doing the action. Example:

  • The new advertising campaign was successfully handled by Mario. (subject: campaign; action: was handled)

The action (was handled) is done to the subject (campaign) by someone or something (in this case, Mario).

Here is that sentence in the active voice:

  • Mario successfully handled the new advertising campaign.

The subject (Mario) does the action (handled).

See the difference?

Passive verbs are always formed with some form of “be” plus the past participle of another verb. More examples:

  • The sweater had been lost by Tracy for a week before she told her sister.
  • The accident was caused by faulty brakes.
  • Carlo was chosen class president.

The action in an active sentence moves more directly from subject through verb to object. Revisions for the above sentences:

  • Tracy lost the sweater a week before she told her sister.
  • Faulty brakes caused the accident.
  • We selected Carlo to be class president.

Even though you may have had an overzealous English teacher telling you to avoid it, the passive voice is not always incorrect. It most certainly has an effective time and place for use. You can usually determine when that is by asking if the revision is awkward and stilted. Of course, when you are asked to rewrite, then you must.

The most common problem with passive voice, besides overuse, is that a subject is often omitted, causing confusion or misreading. Most of the time in business writing, passive is used to avoid a sense of informality resulting from the use of “you” or “I.” However, there are many other ways to revise a sentence to avoid the personal pronouns (which are becoming less problematic in today’s writing).

grammarNOW! says:

Word processing software will always identify passive voice for you so that you can decide whether your phrasing is the most effective. Always try to restructure it in the active voice, but then determine which is most effective.

You can find much more about active and passive voice at many of the resource sites linked from mine.

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