Active and Passive Voice

           VERBS can be divided into two groups, ACTIVE and PASSIVE, which produce very different effects in writing.


             (What is a VERB? - It's a word that describes an action:- 'to run', 'to think', 'to fight' and 'to sleep' are all verbs.)




                        The teacher dropped the pile of books.


             The subject of this sentence is ‘the teacher’. (The subject is the person or thing the sentence is about; or the doer of the action. Here, the teacher does the dropping.)


              The object is ‘the pile of books’. (The object of a sentence is thing acted on. It is the books that are dropped.)


            Sentences written in the ACTIVE voice always follow this pattern: subject – verb – object.


            (Subject)     (verb)     ( object)

            The cat         killed       the mouse.

            The girl         licked       the ice-lolly.

            The man         bit         the dog.


            Sentences written in the active voice are always clear about who or what is performing the action of the verb.

            The ACTIVE VOICE is always more concise, more energetic and more easily understood.

            It is usually to be preferred to the PASSIVE.




            In sentences written in the passive voice, this pattern is reversed. It is less clear.


            The pile of books was dropped by the teacher.

                  (object)               (verb)            (subject)


            A sentence in the passive voice can always be recognised by the use of the verb ‘to be’ in some form – is, are, was, were, will be, been, being, etc.)

            It will also use a past participle - for example, dropped, shut, demanded, thought.)


     (object)  (verb ‘to be’)  (past participle)     (subject)

 The mouse         was             killed   by          the cat.

 The ice-lolly       was             licked by            the girl.

 The dog             was             bitten  by         the man.



            However there are times when THE PASSIVE VOICE is to be preferred.



            The Passive Voice is well used where the action described is more important than the actor, for instance, in scientific reports. So, instead of using the Active -


                        I poured 20cc of acid into the beaker...


            The Passive is used instead: -


                        20cc of acid was poured into the beaker...


            The Passive is also used where the main actor, or subject is unknown, or where you wish the emphasis to be on the person or thing acted on, for example:-


        The unidentified victim was struck by a speeding car...

         The four children were left alone in the house by their mother...

          The horse was left without food by its owner....


            The Passive is used impersonally, when giving information:-

          Fuel allowance will be paid when four consecutive weeks -


          Appointments must be made by...

          Guests are required to vacate their rooms by...


      The Passive Voice is also used to dodge blame, as in:-


          The cigarette adverts were designed to appeal to children...


            The Active Voice would be – 'The Cigarette company designed its adverts to appeal to children.'

               However the company does not wish to draw too much attention to the fact that it is deliberately selling cigarettes to children.


            Consider also:

                   I shot the girl with a gun. (Active)

                   The gun went off and shot the girl. (Passive)


                   Our Allies mistakenly fired on and killed ten of our soldiers.

                   Some fatalities were experienced due to friendly fire.


                   I got drunk and crashed my car.

                   The beer went mad and my car was trashed.


A person who freely chose to identify themselves as 'Vermin McCann' recently contacted me to say that the example given above, 'The gun went off and shot the girl,' is not Passive Voice.

Technically, and with traditional grammar usage, Vermin is correct. 'A gun was fired and a girl was shot,'  would, perhaps, be more to Vermin's taste. Or, 'There was gunfire and a girl was shot.'

But look at the sentence in a less traditional way, according to Functional Grammar, and the sentence is  passive.

 Functional Grammar concerns itself with the way grammar is actually used, day-to-day, and not so much with text-book rules which, traditionally, often involve cramming Germanic languages into Latinate corsets.

In Functional Grammar, an English sentence is considered to have an Actor, an Action, and an object or person who is Acted-upon.

The Sentence below is Active Voice. It has a clear Actor - and both the acid and the beaker are being Acted-Upon.

Actor         Action                             Acted-Upon

    I                    poured                      20cc of acid into a beaker.

The Sentence below is Passive.

Acted-Upon            Action                Acted-Upon              Actor

20 cc of acid             was  poured               into a beaker                    by me.

Both acid and beaker are being acted on by the verb - but the actor is pushed to the end of the sentence, and could be cut altogether without affecting the sense.

Acted-Upon           Action              Acted-Upon  

20 cc of acid           was  poured               into a beaker.  

In the Passive, then, the Actor in the sentence can disappear altogether. The acid was poured into the beaker - but, above, there is no mention of any Actor who poured it.

Actor?                              Action                         Acted Upon

The gun                         went off and shot                          the girl.

Acted Upon?

In the above sentence, we have an Action,  'went off and shot.'  Or even two Actions, although they serve the same function of telling us that the gun was fired at someone.

We have an object who is Acted-Upon by the verb - the girl, who is shot as a result of the Action.

But where is the Actor?

All we have is the gun. Which apparently fired itself. This, as America's gun-lobby is forever telling us, is impossible, because 'guns don't kill people. People kill people.' But in this sentence, the gun appears to be unaccompanied.

That is why I called it Passive Voice.

Active Voice requires an Actor.

In the sentence, 'The gun went off and shot the girl,' there is no Actor. There are only passive elements - the gun, which can take no action by itself, and the girl who is passively shot.

But it's only fair to give Vermin's side of things.