Active and Passive Voice

As students advance their English ability, we find that English allows us to say the same thing in more than one way. When we reach this point, it is not so much what we say but rather how we say it. One instance where being both grammatically correct and stylistically appropriate occurs when using passive voice.

Active Voice
Active voice is generally the style of speaking that students learn first. In active sentences, the verb is performed by the subject.
  • James wrote a book.
In this sentence, "James" is the subject. He is the one who "wrote."

Passive Voice
Passive voice is the opposite of active voice. In order to form the passive, the verb must have a direct object.
  • James wrote a book. ("Book" is the direct object.)
  • James slept. (There is no direct object.)
"James slept" cannot be made into the passive voice, but "James wrote a book" can.

Forming the Passive
If the verb has a direct object, the object then becomes the subject of the passive sentence. 
  • a book
The verb is formed by matching the original verb tense to the be verb. In this case, the verb tense is the simple past. The simple past form of the be verb that agrees with "book" is "was." After was, add the past participle of the main verb: "written."
  • was written
The original subject can then be added using a by-phrase. 
  • by James
You have just formed the passive voice!
  • A book was written by James.
Here are examples of other verb tenses changes into the passive.
  • James is writing a book. > A book is being written by James.
  • James was writing a book. > A book was being written by James.
  • James has written a book. > A book has been written by James.
  • James had been writing a book. > A book had been written by James.
  • Did James write a book? > Was a book written by James?
  • Has James written a book? > Has a book been written by James?
Using the Passive
In many cases, the passive and the active forms of sentences have the same meaning. In these cases the active voice is preferred. 

However, sometimes the passive is useful! If the subject is unknown or unimportant, use the passive.
  • My purse was stolen! (We don't know who stole the purse.)
  • This program was founded in 1901. (Maybe we know who founded the program, but the focus is on the program, not on the founder.)
  • The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe was written by C.S. Lewis. (Even if we know who wrote the book, we are placing more emphasis on the book, not on the author.)
Using the passive voice correctly in the correct places is a great writing skill. If you want to know more about how to use the passive and how to improve your writing, visit us at Nomen Global.

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