Passive Voice

When the subject of a verb acts (the subject is the agent of action {i.e. the actor}), the sentence is in the active voice. The active voice stresses the activity of the subject and helps to make a sentence direct, concise and vigorous.

Example: Only fools eat spaghetti when they are wearing white.

When the subject is acted upon, the sentence is in the passive voice. The passive voice presents the subject as the target of an action.

Example: Spaghetti is eaten only by fools.


Verbs in the passive voice can be formed with any of the corresponding tenses:

simple past:

Active: A security guard chose the alarms Passive: The alarms were chosen by the security guard.

past progressive:

Active: Yesterday those gym rats were lifting the free weights. Passive: Yesterday the free weights were [being] lifted by those gym rats.


Active: John will install the car stereo next week. Passive: Next week the car stereo will be installed by John.


Passive voice can only be constructed with verbs that are transitive, that is, verbs that take an object after them.

Intransitive verbs do not use the passive voice.For example:

Transitive active: The new boss fired me.

Transitive passive: I was fired by the new boss.

Intransitive: For no reason at all, the sun rose over Cincinnati. [Passive voice is not possible.]

The basic formula for changing a passive voice sentence into an active voice sentence is the following:

The heavens were opened by an angry deity who was hoping more people would come to his party.

1) Remove the form of "to be" that is acting as a helping verb in front of the main verb and also remove the "by" in front of the subject

The heavens were opened by an angry deity who was hoping more people would come to his party.

2) Move the subject to the object's position and vice versa.

An angry deity opened the heavens who was hoping more people would come to his party.

3) Move any clauses that modify the subject near the subject (or that modify the object near the object).

An angry deity who was hoping more people would come to his party opened the heavens .


So, when should the passive voice be used?

In most cases you will want to emphasize the actor, so you should use the active voice, however, you may choose to use the passive voice in certain situations:

1) Use the passive voice when you want to keep the focus on someone or something that is acted upon.

Example: Pablo Picasso painted in his blue period while he was being patronized by Mr and Mrs. DeBouillet.

2) Use the passive when the the performer of the action is unknown or unimportant to your point:

Example: Traces of the oil spill were found as far away as Newfoundland.

Note: The actor here is invisible [there is no "by actor" present here]

3) Use the passive when you want to put the performer of the action at the end of the clause, where you can attach a long modifier.

Example: A secret mission to help thousands of starving Rwandans was organized in the summer of 1994 by Father Robert I. McAvoy, a forty-eight-year-old Catholic Priest from Gary, Indiana, with twelve years of experience in the Vietnam war zone.

4) Use the passive voice when you want to emphasize that some person or thing is helpless or a victim {similar to #1}.

Example: The small Arkansas hog farm was leveled by the tornado.

Example: The bag lady was hugged in broad daylight.

5) Use the passive voice when the scientific experiment and the results should be the focus of the sentence {scientific writing often uses the passive voice to lend objectivity to the findings}.

Example: The first documentation of altruistic vampire bats was obtained in 1996 in Mammoth Cave.

Example: The titration experiment was performed under careful laboratory conditions.

Exercises: Change to Active voice where needed.

1. He is troubled by a growing fear that he may lose his temper.

2. A nod, gesture, or a glance can be interpreted by people in several ways.

3. A wave and a smile mean one thing, but a wave and a tear can be interpreted to mean something else.

4. In addition, some people may be irritated by a continual or intense stare.

5. The kindly old woman shopping for a baby gift was berated by a strangely sweet-smelling man, an ex-crossdresser with an attitude, who was still learning the ABC's of polite small talk.

6. With no support from the family, the doctor wonders whether his visit should be ended.

7. We may also be intimidated by a person who talks to us at a very close range.

8. The first evidence of a talking pig was discovered in 1979 shortly after a Charlotte's Web convention had closed.

9. The poor child was tickled within an inch of saying "Uncle Sam" by a man with an industrial-sized feather duster.

10.His initial efforts to examine the girl are thwarted when his glasses are knocked to the floor by her.