Learning Active and Passive Voice Made Easy

Learning Active and Passive Voice Made Easy


This is a guest post from Liz Rufiange. Liz is a teacher and writing coach from the Boston area in the US. She teaches at a school with the second largest population of ESL learners in the state. When she’s not helping people build confidence in their writing skills,  she’s obsessing over her favorite TV shows and listening to Mumford & Sons. She’s a Hufflepuff who takes her coffee with a side of books.  Follow her on Twitter @miraculiz.

how to use the active and passive

Learning active and passive voice is like ripping off a band aid. Everyone hates ripping off band aids. It feels like you’ve died, but you feel so much better when you get it over with. I’m saying this because I was always that kid who sat for hours holding scrapes under running water praying that the band aid would fall off. I know it’s better once I get to it. So, trust me when I say that if you sit down and commit to learning active and passive voice, you’ll feel much better about your writing skills. Get it over with.

Chances are, at some point in time, a teacher returned an essay to you riddled with corrections pointing out all the times you used passive voice. Also, it’s likely that your teacher wasn’t clear exactly how you should go about fixing the passive voice in your essay. Today, we’ll go over an easy and surefire way that will make learning active and passive voice a cinch.

So, take a seat and together we’ll rip off this band aid of dreaded grammar concepts.


Defining Active and Passive Voice


The short answer: Active and passive voice are somewhere in the top ten list of the most feared grammar concepts in the English language. However, the payouts to learning active and passive voice are astronomical. For real: learning active and passive voice takes your writing to the next level. Furthermore, switching your writing from the passive voice to the active voice is the quickest and most legitimate way to see improvements in your writing skills.

Active voice is what you want to use 99% of the time. It makes your writing clear and concise. Direct and to-the-point is how you want your writing. Think of it this way, your readers are human beings with limited and tiny attention spans. No offense, dear readers. They have important things to do. Like talking to their cat and changing the burnt out light bulb in the kitchen. They’re only willing to give a few minutes of their precious time to read what you write. If your sentences meander on and on and it takes years to get to the point, you’re going to lose your readers real fast-like.

With that said, passive voice is acceptable in scientific writing. The structure of passive voice is such that it allows the writer to sound objective. Using passive voice in scientific writing helps the writer present their ideas and conclusions without seeming to fall prey to personal biases. However, note that passive voice, even when its use is acceptable, runs the risk of losing its meaning and the interest of readers.

Passive voice is that guy who corners you at a party to tell you about his encyclopedia collection, and—oh-man-did-you-just-jump-through-a-window-in-a-daring-attempt-to-escape?!


Identify Active and Passive Voice


Find the Subject and Object of a Sentence


Learning active and passive voice is pretty easy once you figure out what the subject and the object of a sentence is. Luckily, finding the subject and object in a sentence is simple. The subject of a sentence is the person or thing that does something. The object of a sentence has something done to it.

For example:

The sloth fell out of the tree.


The sloth is the subject because it does the action (it fell). Since the action happens to the tree, it is the object of the sentence.


Then, the sloth rolled down the hill away from his friends.


Again, the sloth is the subject of the sentence. Since the sloth rolls on the hill, the hill is the object of the sentence.


It took the sloth twenty years to crawl back to the tree that was once his home.


The sloth is the subject. Once again, the tree is the object because it is the thing our sloth friend does some action to and strives for.


Start Learning Active and Passive Voice


In active voice, the subject of the sentence performs the action on the object of the sentence. For example:


The sloth climbed the tree.


The sloth is the subject of the sentence and it performs the action (climbing) on object of the sentence (the tree).


In passive voice, the subject has the action in the sentence performed on it. For instance, if the sentence above was in the passive voice, it would read as follows.


The tree was climbed by the sloth.


Click the button below to get a free cheat sheet you can print to have handy as you learn active and passive voice. It covers a simple, but incredibly effective, trick to figure out if your sentences are in the passive voice. I used this resource with my students, and after using it for a short time, they were able to identify active and passive voice in their writing in a flash.


Another Tip to Identify Passive Voice


The following tip is true in most instances, but not always. The verb to be is a hint that your sentence may be in the passive voice. Why? A sentence in the passive voice will always contain a form of the verb to be (am, is, was, were, are, been). However, not every sentence that has a form of the verb to be is in the passive voice. There are some sentences that have the verb to be that are in the active voice. So take this hint with a grain of salt.


For example, both of these sentences use the passive voice and the verb to be.


The tree was being climbed by the sloth.

The sloth is crawling up the hill.


One hint to make your writing better: try to get rid of all the forms of to be in your writing. On top of potentially making your sentences passive, the English language overuses the verb to be. No lie: 88% of writers don’t get rid of the verb to be in their writing. By you editing it out, you separate your writing from 88% of the population. You want your writing to stand out, right?


Say you had the second sentence above in your writing:


The sloth is crawling up the hill.


To get rid of the verb to be, you would simply change “is crawling” to “crawled.” The sentence would read: The sloth crawled up the hill. Doing this not only eliminates the verb to be, it also switches the sentence from passive voice to active voice. Super easy, yeah?


Feel like you still want some more practice on active and passive voice? Click below for a quick and easy cheat sheet that will help you master the grammar concepts in no time at all.


What tips do you have for learning active and passive voice?