Dummy’s guide to passive-active voice
Eek! That wretched active-passive thing!
You’ve probably run into the misery of active-passive voice? Maybe, in a writing workshop, you half-listened to the instructor explaining the difference between the two?
If so, let’s flash-forward to three days later. You’re motoring through the company kitchen, grabbing a cappuccino before heading back to your desk. But a fellow workshop attendee, plucking a low-fat lemon yogurt from the fridge, bars your path.
“You know that thing about active and passive voice?” she says. “From the workshop on Tuesday? Did you get it?
You open your mouth to answer. Stop.
Stare at her blankly, a just-filched maple-glazed from the planning meeting arrested halfway between hand and mouth.
Terms like subject, object, and verb to be stumble randomly about in your skull. Focusing hard, you can almost recall examples of those highly recommended active-voice sentences – maybe about half of each one. You do remember that the instructor was trying to pull you away from passive. Active, she said, focusing her fierce eye directly on you, is shorter and livelier.
You lift your eyes to your interlocutor. No, you say.
You only need to learn three little clues
You don’t have to get it. You just have to learn three little clues to help you with it. Three flags that will alert you to the passive voice in your writing.
The three little clues:
1. Active voice typically uses the first person: ‘I’ and ‘we.’
2. Passive has no “I’ or “we”, but often uses “by”.
3. Passive typically involves parts of the verb “to be” (is, was, will, to be … see Wordle below).
Passive: This issue will be addressed by the dictatorship at the next convention.
Active: We will address this issue at the next convention.
Passive: It was decided by the steering committee that the report needed revision.
Active: The steering committee decided that the report needed revision.
Passive: The Pinot Grigio was quickly hoovered up by the committee.
Active: The committee quickly hoovered up the Pinot Grigio.
Make it easy – I and we
Here’s one last trick. Squint at your sentence. Try to quickly re-write it with “I” or “we”. If you can’t, it’s probably passive.
Today’s presentation problems were caused by passive-aggressive gremlins. You can’t easily turn that into an “I” or “we” sentence! It’s passive.
Junior partners work more than 10 hours per day. That sentence can easily be written with “I” or “we”: I work more than 10 hours per day.
We work more than 10 hours per day.
In the above examples of active voice, you can easily re-write any of the sentences with an “I” or “we” by changing very little:
- I quickly hoovered up the Pinot Grigio.
- We quickly hoovered up the Pinot Grigio.
A lame rhyme
Checking for passive is e-z
Try it out with ‘I’ or ‘we’