Passive voice is a grammatical term identifying a particular subject/verb relationship—a specialized one that runs counter to the usual active voice.
Typically, the subject of a sentence is the agent that does the action of a sentence. In the examples below, the subject of each of these simple sentences is the agent doing the action.
- The writer cleaned off her desk. [Who cleaned? writer]
- The editor marked the final page of the manuscript. [Who marked? editor.]
- The publisher congratulated the team on a job well-done. [Who congratulated? publisher.
In sentences utilizing the passive voice, however, the subject is actually the recipient of the action. Again, examples may be helpful.
- The book was published by WaterBrook. [The subject book is the object of the action was published rather
than the agent doing the action.]
- The email was sent from her phone. [The subject email is the object of the action was sent rather than the agent doing the action.]
- Another writer was added to the group without advance warning. [The subject writer is the object of the action was added rather than the agent doing the action.]
(from “Clarifying What’s Passive”).
Understanding the passive construction is a good start, but writers also need to know how to revise those sentences and replace the passive verbs with active ones instead.
Writers utilize the passive construction for primarily three reasons: (1) they don’t know who the active agent is, (2) they want to emphasize the object, or (3) they don’t want to point fingers.
Consequently an author might write sentences like these:
The article was shared on both Facebook and Twitter. [The active agent is unknown.]
No one could verify if the film was seen by as many viewers as the theater reported. [The clause if the film was seem by as many viewers emphasizes the subject of that clause, film.]
The car was towed to a nearby garage. [The writer chooses not to point out what agent did the action.]
The key to constructing a sentence in the active voice is to make the subject of the sentence the active agent. The first step is to restructure the sentence so that the subject receiving the action (in the examples above, the subjects in question are article, film, and car respectively) becomes the object of the active verb.
To create the active verb, the writer must remove the form of the be helping verb (was in each of the examples above; other possibilities include were, is, are, been, and being) and any other accompanying helping verbs (such as have or had), then choose the appropriate tense of the action verb.
Finally, the writer must insert a new subject. Often times the agent in a passive sentence shows up as part of a prepositional phrase, usually introduced with by. Those sentences are the easiest to replace: . . . by my neighbors yields the subject neighbors; . . . by the publisher yields the subject publisher.
Putting the three steps together, the passive sentence The tree limbs were broken by the wind becomes the active sentence The wind broke the tree limbs.
The harder kinds of sentences to correct are those which do not name the agent at all. Sometimes context will yield the agent and sometimes an indefinite pronoun can do the job. The examples above which do not have agents might become one of the following:
* Any number of blog visitors shared the article on both Facebook and Twitter. [Subject determined by a context clue.]
- * Many shared the article on both Facebook and Twitter. [Indefinite pronoun used as the subject.]
- * The company associated with AAA towed the car to a nearby garage. [Subject determined by a context clue.]
- * Somebody towed the car to a nearby garage. [Indefinite pronoun used as the subject.]
If there is no context clue and an indefinite pronoun won’t work as the subject, or if the writer’s intent is to feature the receiver of the action, he may need an entirely different sentence structure, perhaps incorporating the information contained in the passive sentence with another sentence, perhaps adding details, or perhaps reordering the sentence and choosing a different verb:
* After being towed to the nearest garage, the car sat unattended for three days. [Incorporated with another sentence.]
* Both Facebook and Twitter became the perfect platform to share the article. [Detail added.]
* The article received considerable attention on both Facebook and Twitter. [Reworded to maintain article as the subject since the writer wished to feature it.]
Unfortunately “the Passive Police” have mistakenly accused a few other sentence constructions of being passive, but they are innocent and therefore writers and/or editors do not need to replace them. For help determining which sentences are not passive despite the accusations, see “Clarifying What’s Passive”. 😉