Understanding Active, Passive Voice Lori Whitley

How to recognize Active and Passive sentences.

Find the subject (the main character of the sentence)
Find the verb (the action that sentence identifies)
Examine the relationship between the subject and main verb.
~Does the subject perform the action of the main verb? (if so the sentence is active)
~Does the subject sit, while something else... named or unnamed... performs the action on it? (if so the sentence is passive)

These are the two voices that occur when we write. The choice of which to use can sometimes pose a problem. First we must understand the difference. The active voice places the agent or the do-er of the action before the verb. Example: "The cat ate the mouse." The passive voice reverses the action. Example: "The mouse was eaten by the cat." With active voice the subject is a do-er or a be-er and the verb moves the sentence along.

In almost all cases, it is better to use active voice. The sentence is more often concise than passive voice. Expressing the same idea in passive voice frequently takes 30% to 40% more words.

With active voice the subject performs the action, in passive voice the subject receives the action. Writing with active voice helps to keep your story compact and keeps the words or phrases that add length but not value to a minimum. Readers don't want to wade through a messy verbal sea to discover one or two gems of information. The heart of the sentence beats in its strong verbs, concrete nouns, and vivid description.

Sometimes passive voice is awkward and times it's vague. Passive voice always avoids the first person, when something is written in first person (I or we) it's in active voice.

Warning signs of passive voice, if there is a form of the verb, "to be" in the sentence, such as, "is/am, are, was, were, being, been." It is impossible to create the passive voice unless the author uses a "to be" verb.

Identify the subject and the main verb in the sentence. Is the subject "doing" the action? Or is it sitting passively while some outside agent "does" the verb to the subject?


Reese Mobley said...

Great explanation, Lori. I had no idea that using a passive voice would use that many more words.

Penny Rader said...

I'm a bit confused by Passive voice always avoids the first person, when something is written in first person (I or we) it's in active voice.

I thought that saying something like I was clawed by my cat is passive but I could make it active by changing it to My mean cat clawed me.

Not that the passive version is necessarily bad. It would depend on whether the focus of the sentence was on the mean cat that used me as a launching pad (aka the passive version) or whether the focus was on me when I was just minding my own business (aka the active version).

This active/passive thing can be so confusing!