Posted by: suekenney | July 8, 2013

Susan’s Editorial Dictionary: A is for Active Voice

The English language has a grammatical aspect called voice.  Every sentence is either in active voice or passive voice.  Most sentences in English are written in the active voice.  In these sentences, the subject of the sentence is either the doer of the action of the verb, or the topic, in the case of linking verbs.  For instance:

Margie sat on the elegant chaise longue.   (Margie is doing the action of sitting.)

Margie is the most endearing physicist I’ve ever met.  (Margie is the topic of the linking verb is.)

Passive voice switches the focus of the sentence to what would be the object of the sentence in active voice.  In passive voice, the subject becomes the recipient of the action.

The chaise longue was made in the new factory in Newburyport.  (Chaise longue receives the action of making.)

A rococo chaise longue

A rococo chaise longue (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Passive voice can be easily recognized by looking at the verb:  it is always a form of the verb be plus the past participle of another verb.  “Am amused,” “was focused,” “will be done,” “has been formed,” “had been started,” and so on.

Another thing to note in passive voice sentences:  the doer of the action is not always mentioned.  For instance, in the sample sentence for passive voice, we don’t know who in particular made the chaise longue; just that it was made in Newburyport, in a new factory.

Generally, you can switch active voice to passive, as long as there is an object to the sentence, and passive to active.  Here are some examples:

Margie lifted the heavy suitcase into the trunk of her car.  (Active – the subject is doing the action)

The heavy suitcase was lifted by Margie into the trunk of her car.  (Passive – the subject is receiving the action)

Margie filled the suitcase with sturdy, warm clothes.  (Active – the subject is doing the action)

The suitcase was filled with sturdy, warm clothes.  (Passive – the subject is the receiver of the action – the doer of the action is not mentioned)

As I said at the beginning, most sentences in English are in the active voice.  Active voice helps the sentences move along more smoothly and quickly; it adds a little bit of pep to your writing.  Active voice is more vivid, more direct.

However, this doesn’t mean that you should always avoid the passive voice.  If you want to focus on the recipient of the action, or for some reason don’t care to mention who specifically is doing the action, then use passive voice.  Just don’t do it very often.

Just for fun, I wrote four sentences or clauses in my main text in passive voice:  can you find all four?  (Don’t count the sample sentences.  If you find more than four, you get an extra gold star!)

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