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Active and Passive Voice

Learning Outcomes

This package will help you revise the form, use and meaning of the active and passive voice.


Before we look at this in detail think about these questions.

1. Which one of these sentences is in the active voice and which in the passive voice?

        a) We interviewed 100 students on their satisfaction with the course.

        b) One hundred students were interviewed on their satisfaction with the course.

2. How do you construct the passive voice?

3. Which one is more likely to be spoken and which written?

4. Which has a more formal feeling to it?

5. Which is more subjective?

6. Which one is more objective?

7. Can you think of places where you would be more likely to see the passive voice used?

8. Can you write this sentence in the passive voice?

                He arrived in Paris at 8.45 in the morning.

We will return to this quiz at the end of this package.

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Form, Use and Meaning

There are two forms for verbs called voice:

  1. Active voice
  2. Passive voice

The active voice is the voice that we use most of the time. You are probably already familiar with the active voice. In the active voice, we follow a straight forward subject – verb – object structure. The object receives the action of the verb:

The passive voice is less usual and generally more common in formal, official or academic writing. In the passive voice, the subject receives the action of the verb:

The object of the active verb becomes the subject of the passive verb:

Construction of the Passive Voice

The structure of the passive voice is very simple:

subject + auxiliary verb (be) + main verb (past participle)

The main verb is always in its past participle form.

Look at these examples:

We use the passive when:
  • we want to make the active object more important
  • we do not know the active subject
  • the active subject is obvious and does not need to be mentioned

Note that we always use by to introduce the passive object

(Beer is drunk by most men).

But consider this sentence:

He was killed with an axe.

Normally we use by to introduce the passive object. But the axe is not the active subject. The gun did not kill him. He was killed by somebody with an axe. In the active voice, it would be: Somebody killed him with an axe. The axe is the tool or instrument. Somebody is the "agent" or "doer".

It is common to use passive structures in academic and official writing because in many cases, the agent (the ‘doer’ of the action) is sometimes less important than the action itself, or not known or more frequently irrelevant. The passive voice is also used in academic and official writing because it is:

  • more distant (less personal)
  • more objective
  • more formal

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