May 2, 2014
Active Is Always Best
Recently, students have asked questions about verbs and active and passive voice. This made me think perhaps a good education grammar blog would be over active and passive voice.
Before jumping into each of those, though, first let’s look at the verbs. There are two types of verbs. Yep, you guessed them, active and passive. Active verbs show action and explain a state of being. Passive verbs do not show action but link nouns. The to be verbs and to have verbs are the linking or helping verbs and also act as passive verbs because they do not show action.
Okay, so let’s take that information and look at the two voices: active and passive. Active and passive voices have just as much to do with sentence structure as they do with verb choice. In American English, the preferred sentence structure would be the following: Subject + Verb + Object. The subject is the noun that performs some action. The verb is the action performed, and the object is a noun that receives the action from the subject.
I will eat the apple.
Chris ran laps after smarting off to the coach.
The student learns much information in her class.
Let’s break these down in order to identify the subject, verb, and object in each.
This Subject + Verb + Object sentence structure shows active voice because the subject performs an action on or to the object. As the Purdue OWL explains, “Active voice is used for most non-scientific writing. Using active voice for the majority of your sentences makes your meaning clear for readers, and keeps the sentences from becoming too complicated or wordy. Even in scientific writing, too much use of passive voice can cloud the meaning of your sentences.”
In passive voice, the subject and the object basically reverse places in the sentence structure. Let’s take the examples from above and put them in passive voice.
The apple will be eaten by me.
The laps were run by Chris after smarting off to the coach.
Much information is learned by the student in her class.
The subject is still the same, but it sits in the object’s place in the sentence structure thus making the object appear to be the subject when it really is not. For example, in the second sentence above, Chris still performs the action of running the laps, but the sentence structure would lead readers to believe that the laps perform the action when they do not.
As one can see in the above examples, passive voice is awkward, distracting, and confusing. Moreover, the wordiness distracts readers from the main points of the sentences. Oh, and it just sounds weird. The Purdue OWL further expounds upon passive voice: “In a sentence using passive voice, the subject is acted upon; he or she receives the action expressed by the verb. The agent performing the action may appear in a ‘by the…’ phrase or may be omitted.” Writers often omit the ‘by the…’ phrase, so a sentence may read “The apple will be eaten” instead of “The apple will be eaten by me.” Both are passive voice sentences.
Really, the only time one should think about using passive voice is in scientific writing, but even then, writers should be aware of their use of active voice. So how do writers do that? Well, first of all look for the to be verbs (am, is, are, was, were, be, been, being). Before going on further, it is important to note that a to be verb does not immediately mean that one used passive voice. However, if a sentence has a to be verb followed by the past participle form of an active verb (usually ends in –ed with a few exceptions), then the sentence structure is passive voice.
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