“Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.” Exodus 4:12
Beside the sports theme, what is the common thread running through this short photo essay? Answer: All the captions are written in passive voice (including this answer).
In all my years of teaching writing, I’ve seen the elements of passive and active voice consistently confuse students at every level. So what exactly is the difference between passive and active voice, and why is it important to know?
Passive Voice Drains Energy from Writing
In previous posts, I’ve discussed how strong verbs and imagery infuse energy into writing, while weak words and descriptors leave writing limp and lifeless. The same holds true for how we construct sentences. Even strong terms go flat if we arrange them ineffectively.
Active voice keeps writing energized. Passive voice puts it to sleep. In active voice, characters are doing the action directly. That wakes writing up and keeps the pace moving. How can we tell which voice is which? The key lies in identifying the action and determining who/what is doing it.
Look at this passive sentence: The ball was thrown by the boy. What is the action? Throwing. Who is doing the action? The boy. Active voice starts with who is doing the action, and having them do it. The boy threw the ball. In passive voice, the “doer” receives the action instead of doing it.
Here’s another passive example: Dinner was delayed until the last guests arrived. What is the action? Delaying. Who is doing the action? Aha, there’s a twist! The sentence doesn’t identify who is doing the delaying. To change this passive sentence to active voice, we must supply the missing information ourselves. Mom delayed dinner until the last guests arrived. We delayed dinner… Our host delayed dinner… The point is, somebody delayed dinner.
Let’s revisit some of the photo essay captions. The line under the first pictures says that the ball was carried. Obviously, the action is carrying. Who did the action? How about a running back? In active voice, the sentence would read “A running back carried the ball through a sudden opening in the defensive line.”
Second picture: The quarterback was brought down by a defensive tackle.
What’s the action? Bringing down. Who did the action? A defensive tackle. So the active sentence is: “A defensive tackle brought down the quarterback.”
You do the next one: The ball was intercepted by number 32 at the 10-yard line. What is the action? Who is doing it? So what is the active voice revision of this sentence?
The last one: The cheerleader was safely caught by her squad. What is the action? Who is doing it? What is the active voice revision?
Practice identifying the passive voice in these sentences and changing it to active voice:
1. A research project was conducted by the science department of a prestigious university.
2. Malaria is spread by mosquitoes.
3. It is generally understood that smoking can lead to lung disease.
4. The captain’s order was received and executed by his crew.
5. What can be gained from arguing about conflicting belief?
6. In the doctor’s office, we were told that our child needed surgery.
7. During ancient times, natural disasters were viewed as the acts of angry deities.
8. Christmas gifts were given to orphans by a local church.
9. It is believed by many new drivers that speed limits are just suggestions.
10. Much can be accomplished when people work together.
After looking through these practice sentences, try making up some of your own. I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments section.