We’re often asked, “What’s the difference between active and passive voice?” This is one of those English concepts that can be kind of hard to get a knack for. We’ll start with some definitions. Active voice leaves the subject or doer in the sentence in the subject position. This is the most commonly used voice and what many people use in default. Examples of active voice include: they love sports; Gary’s cat brings mice home. We can see this in scholarly articles as well:
“…the dancer moves the body downward, synchronizing it with the downbeat…” (Nahoko 2)
Passive voice is when the subject or doer is taken out of the subject position of the sentence; often, the doer is also hidden. We see passive voice used most in science writing because it leaves a feeling of impartial data when we don’t have the doer in the sentence. Some examples of passive voice include: the experiment was completed; a car was totaled. Again, our real world example shows us:
“The COM was derived based on the body segment inertia parameter” (Nahoko 2).
But how do we switch from one to the other? Let’s take this sentence in active voice
Bob ate cake.
and play with it for a minute. The key idea with active/passive voice is to identify the subject by asking this question: Who/What did it? Who ate the cake? Bob ate the cake. (Or what rolls down the hill? The ball rolls.) Once we identify the doer, we can remove it or move it to the end of the sentence. Once we’ve done that, we take the direct object and move it into the subject position, creating a new subject, cake. Finally, we need to put the verb back in, usually with a tense word like was or is, and voila, we have a new, passive sentence:
The cake was eaten.
The cake was eaten by Bob.
We no longer have a doer (Who ate the cake? I have no idea, you numpty…) and the sentence moves from active to passive. Passive voice utilizes the past tense of a verb, but it can be done in present or future as well.
The cake is being eaten.
The cake will be eaten.
Make sense? This takes some practice, but once you get the hang of it, it can be pretty easy. To explain… [pause]. There is too much. Let me sum up (bonus points if you get the reference): Passive voice is often used in science writing, but we can easily transform active to passive using a question and some rearranging.
For more information, see The Purdue OWL for a great visual of this process or BYU’s Style Academy for a video and other resources.
Good luck and happy writing.
Nahoko, Sato, Nunome Hiroyuki, and Ikegami Yasuo. “Kinematic Analysis Of Basic Rhythmic Movements Of Hip-Hop Dance: Motion Characteristics Common To Expert Dancers.” Journal Of Applied Biomechanics 31.1 (2015): 1-7. SPORTDiscus with Full Text. Web. 28 Jan. 2015.