DR. WRITE'S REMARKS ©
[Originally Broadcast on
W A M C
Northeast
Public Radio]

Active and Passive Voice© DrWrite.Com 2005

Mrs. Doctor Write says I'm passive-aggressive. I tell her that's not so. I'm active-aggressive. Then she says "Don't talk to me in that tone of voice." So I try to explain that the active voice is much better than the passive voice. And that's when she throws her pencil at me. But I don't blame her. This active/passive thing has to be one of the most confusing aspects of writing. We like to say we'll know it when we see it, but trying to explain it is another matter entirely. So bear with me while I give it my best shot.

The textbooks say it's all about the subject. For example, if you say "The boxer threw the fight," that's active voice, but if you say "The fight was thrown by the boxer," that's passive.

So what, you say. The meaning is still the same; isn't it? What's the difference between the boxer throwing the fight and the fight being thrown by the boxer? Either way, he's a loser.

Well, you're right, at least as far as the grammar of it is concerned. Either way, there's no grammatical error. The problem is more subtle. What you have to ask yourself is this: what's more important—the boxer or the fight? Because, in the English language, the most important thing nearly always comes first. And what happens when you use passive voice is that you put the important thing last. That slows things down; it makes the writing dull and listless; just like that fighter who took a dive.

But we want our writing to be lively; we want it to move around the ring, stay on its toes, jab and weave. We want to keep the reader interested. So what's the solution?

[This is when Mrs. Dr. Write shouts: "Active voice!"]

Thank you dear.

All right then. Active voice it is. But how do you find the passive voice? And how do you get rid of it?

Actually, it's pretty easy. Just remember that most sentences consist of three things: a subject, a verb, and an object. In the example of the active boxer, the one who threw the fight: the boxer is the subject. But in the passive voice, the subject is the fight, the one that was thrown by the boxer.

The way you tell the difference is by the verb. All you need to do is look for the "to be” verbs (is, was, were, will be, would be, and so forth.) followed by a past tense verb (watched, threatened, considered, thrown, etc.). Another way to check for passive voice is to look for the word BY after the verb. Take this sentence for example:

The 'doctor' is the subject, so turning the sentence around and putting her first, makes the sentence active: