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Kim Wilson
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Hamilton, NJ 08610

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Good Writing: Switch from Passive Voice to Active Voice for More Power in Your Writing
by Jose M. Blanco

Inexperienced writers often use passive voice instead of active voice in their writing, creating weak prose that is difficult to understand. Recognizing the passive voice in your own writing and knowing how to rewrite sentences in the active voice will make your writing style more vigorous and easy to read.

Recognizing the Passive Voice

In passive voice constructions, the person or thing that does the action is buried at the end of the sentence in a prepositional phrase or is not stated at all. The thing that something is being done to is the grammatical subject of the sentence. Take a look at the following sentence

  • The report was misplaced.

What is the thing that was "misplaced"? The report. Notice that it is the grammatical subject of the sentence. Who misplaced the report? The writer does not tell us. The person who does the action, arguably the most important element of the sentence, is not even mentioned. This sentence can also be rewritten in the following manner, to include the person who misplaced the report (often called the "agent" or "doer" of the action).

  • The report was misplaced by Mr. Jenkins.

Notice that the writer chooses to hide Mr. Jenkins, the agent or "doer" of the action, in a prepositional phrase at the end of the sentence. These two sentences illustrate the passive voice. It is characterized by the use of the verb "to be" (is, was, were) as a helping verb to a main verb in the present (ing) or past (ed) participle.

Rewriting in the Active Voice

The most recognizable and comfortable sentence pattern in English is "Subject + Verb + Object." The subject is usually the agent, as in "Joe hit the ball," which is in the active voice. Compare "Joe hit the ball" (active) with "The ball was hit by Joe" (passive). To rewrite a sentence in the active voice:

  1. Identify an agent or "doer" of the action. If no agent is stated in the original passive sentence, create one. (Joe, in the example above.)
  2. Identify the action that the agent is doing and make that action a verb in the simple present tense or past tense (hit, the verb in simple past tense.)
  3. Identify the thing that the subject is doing something to. (the ball).
  4. Rewrite the sentence, placing the agent in the subject position.

Passive Voice is Appropriate at Times

There are times, however, where the passive voice is more appropriate than the active voice. For example, if you consciously want to hide the agent or if the agent is not really relevant, use the passive voice. For example, the sentence, "The Baseball Writers Association voted Andre Dawson into the hall of fame" lacks the proper emphasis. The emphasis should be Andre Dawson, not the organization that voted him into the hall, thus "Andre Dawson was voted into the hall of fame." This is one case where the passive voice is more appropriate than the active voice.

But remember; this is the exception. In general, use the active voice in your writing. Your writing will have more vigor and be easier to read than if your writing is full of passive constructions.
 


 

You may have additional questions about using correct English. If you do, please contact me. My name is Jose M. Blanco. I teach English composition, and I have developed worksheets to help students and teachers alike. Please visit my website, http://www.grammar-worksheets.com for additional resources and contact information.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

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