Active vs Passive Voice

You probably have heard people mention active and passive voice. You might have heard them mentioned in an English class or perhaps in a language class. However, a lot of people have a hard time understanding active voice and passive voice and direct objects. So I thought I’d write this post on the subject in the hopes of it helping.

Active Voice

Active voice is kind of hard to describe. Essentially, active voice is more commonly used and is when the subject of a sentence acts on something else. For instance:

Sally pet the dog.

In this sentence, Sally is the subject, the word “pet” is the verb, and the dog is the direct object. The subject of the sentence is what the sentence is focusing on. In this sentence, the most important part is Sally. The verb, pet, is the word that describes what Sally does. The dog is what Sally, the subject, acts on, which makes it the direct object. For the sake of having more examples to help explain, here are two more:

Bob kicked the ball.

Molly called James.

In the first example, Bob is the subject because he’s the focus of the sentence. He acts on the direct object, the ball, by kicking it. In the second example, Molly is the subject. She acts on James, who is the direct object, by calling him.

A direct object is anything that is acted on directly, be it any variety of noun (person, place, thing, or idea).

Passive Voice

Passive voice is just the opposite of active voice. In passive voice, the thing being acted on is the focus of the sentence, instead of the subject. For instance:

The dog was pet by Sally.

In this sentence, Sally is still the subject, “pet” is still the verb, and the dog is still the direct object. However, everything is rearranged. In English, the most important part of the sentence is generally placed first. So, if you want to focus on what’s being acted on instead of what’s acting, then you use passive voice. So, while Sally is still the subject, the dog is the most important part of the sentence. It’s a way of inverting the typical sentence structure to make the direct object take precedence over the subject. Just to help show the difference, I’ll rewrite the other two examples from my active voice section in passive voice.

The ball was kicked by Bob.

James was called by Molly.

In the first sentence, the ball is still the direct object, “kicked” is still the verb, and Bob is still the subject. However, the sentence is written in passive voice to move the focus onto the direct object rather than the subject. In the second sentence, something similar occurs. James is still the direct object, “called” is still the verb, and Molly is still the subject. Passive voice does nothing except shift the focus of a sentence from the subject to the direct object.

Writing with Active and Passive Voice

If you are writing an academic paper of any kind, you generally want to use active voice. It’s more concise than passive voice, flows more smoothly, and is often considered more professional.

Now, if you’re writing fiction, then you can play with active and passive voice. For instance, you might have a scene where you would prefer to focus on what’s being acted on rather than the main actor. For example:

“What happened?” Molly insisted, shaking her friend, “James, you have to tell me!”

“Bob,” James choked out through his tears, “Bob was murdered by Thomas.”

“What?” Molly asked, her eyes going wide and her hand slapping over her mouth.

In this example, Bob is more important to the two characters than Thomas. They’re more concerned about Bob being dead than about Thomas’ involvement in his death. Now, they might be very worried about the fact that Thomas committed murder after the death of their friend sinks in. But, at the moment, they’re too upset about Bob’s death to make Thomas the subject of their conversation.

~Victoria

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