Rhetoric and Composition/Active and Passive Voice

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Disclaimer: In everyday writing, the active voice is used to concisely and forcibly describe people's actions. The passive voice also has important rhetoric uses in everyday writing. It is more common in formal writing that tries to be less personal. The terms "active" and "passive voice" and their significance to good writing are explained in the article below.

Voice in English Writing[edit]

Languages have different levels of formality that vary with the purpose, the audience, and the situation. Generally, written English is more formal than spoken English because the person has more time to think about what to say. Formal writing uses fewer personal pronouns and less colloquial language, or slang. Another important difference is the use of grammatical voice.

"Voice" has two meanings in writing. "Voice" can be defined as "how the writer's personality and attitude toward the topic are revealed to the audience." Voice, in this definition, is what makes one writer sound different from another. "Voice" is also a grammatical term; for clarity, it may be referred to as "grammatical voice." There are two voices discussed in this section: the active voice and the passive voice.

Active and Passive Voice Sentences[edit]

Most English sentences are written with active, passive, or neuter verbs, such as "to be" verbs. The active and passive voices are the two main voices in English, but some sentences may also be considered to be in the middle or mediopassive voice. Voice is the relationship between the subject and the verb in a clause or the transfer of action.

  • In the active voice, the subject performs the action. The subject of an active-voice construction is known as an agent. A clause with an active, transitive verb will be in the form of subject-verb-object.

Example: The student finished the exercise.

  • In the passive voice, the subject receives the action. The subject of a passive-voice construction is known as a patient. An active voice clause can be passivized, or recast in the passive voice (for example, to increase formality), by making the object of the active clause the subject of the passive clause. "The exercise" is the object in the sentence above. The verb will be "was finished." For a passive verb, the tense and subject-verb agreement are always shown through the auxiliary verb "to be." The main verb is always the past participle. The subject of the active voice sentence can be included in a prepositional phrase with "by."

Example: The exercise was finished by the student.

Active Voice Passive Voice
The teacher referred to "voice" as a grammatical term. "Voice" was referred to as a grammatical term by the teacher.
The man yelled at the waiter. The waiter was yelled at by the man.
Millions of people lived in the houses. The houses were lived in by millions of people.

Intransitive verbs can be used in the passive voice when a prepositional phrase is included.

Intransitive verbs without prepositional phrases cannot be passivized. There is no word to become the subject of the sentence.

Active voice: Millions of people lived.

Passive voice: ? was lived.

Linking verbs (such as being verbs) are intransitive verbs that can never be used in the passive voice. They do not show action and are thus neither active nor passive. They are called neuter verbs.

Use of the Passive Voice[edit]

Converting an active-voice clause to a passive-voice clause may not change technical meaning, but can be done for altered formality or emphasis as well as change the connotation of the text. Linguistic studies have found high percentages of passive verbs in formal writing. The passive voice can emphasize an agent, a patient, or an adverb. It can be used for narrative flow and continuity in conversations.

Emphasizing the agent: Hamlet was written by Shakespeare.

The passive voice emphasizes Shakespeare by putting his name at the end, the most emphatic part of a sentence.

Emphasizing the patient: Jamey was fascinated by Language Arts.

The passive-voice construction emphasizes Jamey more effectively than the active-voice equivalent "Language Arts fascinated Jamey."

Emphasizing the adverb: That is strictly prohibited.

Because a passive verb consists of two words, an adverb becomes emphatic when placed between "to be" and the past participle.

The passive voice can be used to eliminate first- and second-pronouns in formal writing.

Active voice: I hope that....

Passive voice: It is hoped that....

In formal writing, the writer may want to alternate between sentences in the first person and passive sentences in which the pronoun is implied to prevent the monotony caused by starting too many sentences with "I."

Research studies are described in the passive voice. Research is intended to be objective, without the biases of the researchers conducting the experiments. An experiment should be the same no matter who performs it.

Active voice: I collected samples from the subjects.

Passive voice: Samples were collected from the subjects.

A sentence in the imperative mood can be rewritten in the passive voice to make it more formal or less harsh.

Active voice: Do not smoke.

Passive voice: Smoking is prohibited.

Active voice: Avoid contractions in formal writing.

Passive voice: Contractions should be avoided in formal writing.

The examples above for first- and second-person pronouns make use of the institutional passive, which omits the agent. In writing and speech, almost eighty-five percent of passive sentences are in the institutional passive.

The Structural Difference[edit]

The difference between active and passive is in how many noun phrases in the sentence that are not introduced with the use of a preposition. Compare the following sentences:

                I dropped the ball.   
                The ball was dropped by me.                             


                The man offered the butler a reward.
                The Butler was offered a reward by the man.
  • In the active voice, the sentence has between two and three noun phrases that do not require a prepositional phrase. These are called the subject, the direct object and the indirect object.
    • I dropped the ball. ("I" is the subject. "The ball" is the direct object.)
    • The man offered the butler a reward. ("The man" is the subject. "The butler" is the indirect object and "a reward" is the direct object.)
    • The man offered a reward to the butler. ("The man" is still the subject. "A reward" is still the direct object, but "the butler" is now part of a prepositional phrase and is no longer an indirect object.)
  • In the passive voice, the sentence has one fewer noun phrase than the corresponding active. The subject is removed and can appear only in an optional prepositional phrase. The object is promoted to subject. For ditransitive verbs, the direct or indirect object can become the subject.
    • The ball was dropped by me. ("The ball" is now the subject. "Me" shows up in an optional "by"-phrase.)
    • The Butler was offered a reward by the man. ("The butler" is now the subject. There is only one object: "a reward." "The man" shows up in an optional "by"-phrase.)
    • A reward was offered to the butler by the man. ("A reward" is now the subject. "The butler" is not considered an indirect object because it is part of a prepositional phrase. "The man" shows up in an optional "by"-phrase.)

Without a change in meaning, using the active or passive voice can emphasize different noun phrases in the examples above. By using the passive voice, the writer can take away emphasis from the perpetrator of the action and place it instead on the receiver of the action. In this way, focus is placed mostly on the action.