This learning packet should review:
-The difference between passive and active voice.
-"By" phrases (i.e. Fish are eaten by sharks and other predators.)
-How to construct sentences in passive voice.
-Commonly missed passive voice constructions (e.g. He's called Chris. He is known as Chris).
This very brief clip (less than a minute!) gives some quick yet helpful information about active and passive voice. This is a great place to start for any students struggling with this concept.
This slide show presentation offers learners definitions of active and passive voice, a detailed explanation of each, as well as many examples and opportunities for practice. Key concepts, such as "by phrases" are covered in an in-depth way.
Source: www.foothillhigh.org/.../02k-ActiveandPassiveVoiceOffice2003.ppt, modified by Rebecca Oberg
Here's a question from Brian in Iowa. He writes, “It drives me crazy when people write in passive voice. How can I teach people how to tell the difference between passive and active voice and to stay away from passive voice?”
Well, Brian is right, the first step is to help people understand the difference between active and passive voice, because many people believe they should avoid the passive voice, but fewer people can define it or recognize it.
What Is Active Voice?
I'll start with active voice because it's simpler. In an active sentence, the subject is doing the action. A straightforward example is the sentence "Steve loves Amy." Steve is the subject, and he is doing the action: he loves Amy, the object of the sentence.
Another example is the title of the Marvin Gaye song “I Heard It through the Grapevine.” "I" is the subject, the one who is doing the action. "I" is hearing "it," the object of the sentence.
What Is Passive Voice?
In passive voice, the target of the action gets promoted to the subject position. Instead of saying, "Steve loves Amy," I would say, "Amy is loved by Steve." The subject of the sentence becomes Amy, but she isn't doing anything. Rather, she is just the recipient of Steve's love. The focus of the sentence has changed from Steve to Amy.
If you wanted to make the title of the Marvin Gaye song passive, you would say “It was heard by me through the grapevine,” not such a catchy title anymore.
Is "To Be" a Sign of a Passive Sentence?
A lot of people think all sentences that contain a form of the verb “to be” are in passive voice, but that isn't true. For example, the sentence "I am holding a pen" is in active voice, but it uses the verb “am,” which is a form of “to be.” The passive form of that sentence is "The pen is being held by me."
Notice that the subject, the pen, isn't doing anything in that sentence. It's not taking an action; it's passive. One clue that your sentence is passive is that the subject isn't taking a direct action.
Is Passive Voice Always Wrong?
Passive voice isn't wrong, but it's often a poor way to present your thoughts.
Another important point is that passive sentences aren't incorrect; it’s just that they often aren't the best way to phrase your thoughts. Sometimes passive voice is awkward and other times it’s vague. Also, passive voice is usually wordy, so you can tighten your writing if you replace passive sentences with active sentence.
When you put sentences in passive voice, it's easy to leave out the person or thing doing the action. For example, "Amy is loved," is passive. The problem with that sentence is that you don't know who loves Amy.
Politicians often use passive voice to intentionally obscure the idea of who is taking the action. Ronald Reagan famously said, “Mistakes were made,” when referring to the Iran-Contra scandal. Other examples of passive voice for political reasons could include “Bombs were dropped,” and “Shots were fired.” Pay attention to the news and listen for examples of passive voice.
Also, a reader named Matthew commented that businesses sometimes use passive voice. He notes that it sounds better to write, "Your electricity will be shut off," than "We, the electric company, will be shutting off your power."
Is Passive Voice Hard to Understand?
A recent study suggests that less educated people--those who dropped out of school when they were 16--have a harder time understanding sentences written in the passive voice than those written in active voice. I only had access to the press release, not the original study, but the results made it seem as if you should stick with active voice if you're writing for the general population.
Can Passive Voice Work in Fiction Writing?
Passive voice is also sometimes useful in fiction writing. For example, if you were writing a mystery novel and you wanted to highlight missing cookies because they are central to the story, passive voice is the best option. It would make more sense to write, "The cookies were stolen," instead of "Somebody stole the cookies."
The difference is subtle, but in the passive sentence “The cookies were stolen,” the focus is on the cookies. In “Somebody stole the cookies,” the focus would be on the unknown somebody.
Passive voice can be helpful if you want to create a sense of mystery in your sentence, which is also a reason that it's not usually a good choice when you're writing nonfiction and you want your writing to be clear.
Source: grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/active-voice-versus-passive-voice.aspx, modified by Rebecca Oberg
This strange and funny song offers some memorable examples of active and passive voice, using information from popular culture.
Sophia college courses cost up to 80% less than traditional courses*. Start a free trial now.