The voice of the verb refers to the relationship between the subject and the action.
If the verb has an active voice, then the subject is doing the action.
If the verb has a passive voice, then the action is happening to the subject. In other words, the subject would normally be the object of the verb.
Active voice: Treebeard sang a song.
Passive voice: The song was sung by Treebeard.
The passive voice is formed by using some form of to be as a helping verb and adding a past participle. Here are some examples:
|To Be||+ Past Participle|
Another clue that you’re dealing with the passive voice is that the implied subject is often included after the verb (usually in a by construction):
These cows are milked by robots.
In fact, to make a sentence active you need to figure out who is actually doing the action (robots) and make that the subject:
Robots milk these cows.
However, not all verbs are easily transformed from the active to the passive (or vice versa). Some transitive verbs that take a direct object in the active voice simply don’t make sense in a passive construction. For example, you can’t say that something is lacked.
As much as possible, write in the active voice. Compare the following two sentences for directness:
If you want to ensure a successful rebellion, the current ruler must be apprehended, all media outlets must be captured and controlled, and innocent civilians should be protected as much as possible.
If you want to ensure a successful rebellion, you should apprehend the current ruler, capture and control all media outlets, and protect innocent civilians as much as possible.
As you can see, the active version is more colorful and concise. That’s why you should use the passive voice sparingly.
The passive voice works best in the following situations:
- When you don’t know who the subject is or don’t want others to know
- When you want to draw attention to the action (and its object) rather than the subject
- When you want your tone to be more abstract and indirect (e.g., in some academic discourse)
However, be selective about when you use the passive voice, also in formal writing. Your default option should be the active voice.
Finally, some grammar books tell you to avoid mixing the active and the passive voice in the same sentence. Our advice is to go with what sounds the most natural.
The following sentence has two passive voice verbs:
We were told by our tour guide that the Louvre was closed due to flooding.
In this case the first verb is best made active, whereas the second is fine as is:
Our tour guide told us that the Louvre was closed due to flooding.
Being aware of these subtle differences will give you greater control over your writing.