Voice

Voice

Voice is the term used to describe whether a verb is active or passive.

When the subject of the verb is doing the action of the verb, the verb is said to be in the active voice. When the subject of the verb is being acted upon, the verb is said to be in the passive voice.

Easy Examples of Voice

Here are three examples of verbs (shown in bold) in the active voice.
  • Lee ate the pies.
  • (Lee is the subject of the verb. The subject is doing the action of the verb.)
  • We play hopscotch.
  • (We is the subject of the verb. The subject is doing the action of the verb.)
  • The sharks will attack the cage.
  • (The sharks is the subject of the verb. The subject is doing the action of the verb.)
Here are examples of verbs in the passive voice.
  • The pies were eaten by Lee.
  • (The pies is the subject of the verb. The subject is being acted upon.)
  • Hopscotch is played by us.
  • (Hopscotch is the subject of the verb. The subject is being acted upon.)
  • The cage will be attacked by the sharks.
  • (The cage is the subject of the verb. The subject is being acted upon.)

Real-Life Examples of Voice

In the examples above, the actions of the verbs (to eat, to play, to attack) are obvious physical activities. Remember though, not all verbs describe such obvious activities. This is particularly true for verbs in the active voice. The verbs in these four examples are all in the active voice.
  • Dogs sniff good smells with their left nostril.
  • I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too. (Queen Elizabeth I)
  • The voice of Mickey Mouse and the voice of Minnie Mouse became husband and wife in real life.
  • Only a quarter of the Sahara Desert is sandy.
Here are some verbs in the passive voice with less obvious actions.
  • At one time, Melbourne was known as Batmania.
  • Philosophy was considered science once. (Satirist PJ O'Rourke)
Only a verb that acts on something else (called a transitive verb) can be written in the passive voice.
  • More people are killed taking selfies than in shark attacks.
  • (To kill is a transitive verb; i.e., you kill something.)
  • That tiny pocket in jeans was designed to store pocket watches.
  • (To design is a transitive verb; i.e., you design something.)
  • Avocados were named after the Nahuatl word for testicles.
  • (To name is a transitive verb; i.e., you name something.)
If a verb is intransitive (i.e., it does not act on something else), it will always be in the active voice.
  • Being English, I always laugh at anything about the lavatory or bottoms. (Actress Elizabeth Hurley) (To laugh is an intransitive verb. You can't laugh a dog, for example.)
  • Anybody who smiles automatically looks better. (Actress Diane Lane) (To smile and to look are intransitive verbs. You can't smile a dog or look a dog, for example.)
  • Our noses and ears grow throughout our lives.
  • (Here, to grow is an intransitive verb.)
Other common intransitive verbs are to cry, to die, to disappear and to wait. Remember, these cannot be used in the passive voice. As intransitive verbs don't act on something (i.e., have no objects), there is nothing to become the subject of a verb in the passive voice.

It gets a little bit more complicated because some verbs, like to grow, can be intransitive or transitive.
  • I grew tomatoes.
  • (Here, to grow is transitive. That means we can make it passive.)
  • Tomatoes were grown by me.
  • (This is the passive version.)
  • The beanstalk grew quickly.
  • (Here, to grow means to get bigger. In this meaning, it is intransitive. That means we can't make it passive. The beanstalk was got bigger quickly. That's nonsense.)
There are entries on transitive verbs and intransitive verbs.

Here's something else to look out for. It is extremely common for verbs in the active voice and the passive voice to be used after words like can, cannot, may, might, must and should (called modals).
  • He who is to be a good ruler must have been ruled. (Philosopher Aristotle)
  • (Is is in the active voice. Have been ruled, which follows the modal must, is in the passive voice.)
  • Canadians say "sorry" so much that The Apology Act was passed in 2009, declaring that an apology cannot be used as evidence of admission of guilt.
  • (Was passed is in the passive voice. Be used, which follows the modal cannot is also in the passive voice.)
It is common for verbs in the active voice and passive voice to appear in the same sentence.
  • Theodore Roosevelt owned a pet hyena, which was given to him by an Ethiopian emperor.
  • (Owned is in the active voice. Was given is in the passive voice.)
  • My music was consideredfelt a connection with the audience. (Singer David Cassidy)
  • (Was considered is in the passive voice. Felt is in the active voice.)
  • The scary thing is that in my lifetime, 95 per cent of the world's rhinos have been killed.
  • (Is is in the active voice. Have been killed is in the passive voice.)

Why Should I Care about Voice?

Writers tend to favour the active voice over the passive voice for the following reasons:
  • (Reason 1) The active voice is more succinct.
  • (Reason 2) The active voice is more direct.
  • (Reason 3) The active voice is more informative.
  • (Reason 4) The active voice is more authoritative.
  • (Reason 5) The active voice is more engaging.
Each of these benefits is explained in more detail in the entry for active sentences.

Even though there are some good reasons to use the passive voice, the bias for the active voice is so strong that proof-readers (real people) and grammar checkers (computer programs) will often try to correct a passive construction to an active one. Before we discuss whether this is right or wrong, there is a more fundamental issue that needs to be addressed. Proof-readers routinely identify something as passive voice that is, in fact, active voice.

The best way to spot a passive-voice construction is to look for a form of the verb "to be" (e.g., am, are, is, was, were, has been, have been, had been, will be, will have been, being, be) followed by a past participle (i.e., the form of the verb that typically ends in -ed or -en). (There is an entry on past participles.)
Form of the verb to bePast participlePassive voice
amlicensedI am licensed to kill.
wasdevelopedIt was developed last year.
has beenseenHe has been seen in France.
will have beeneatenIt will have been eaten by then.
Remember, modals like can, cannot, could, might and should can also feature.
ModalForm of the verb to bePast ParticiplePassive voice
cannotbelicensedI cannot be licensed to kill.
mightbedevelopedIt might be developed last year.
shouldhave beenseenHe should have been seen in France.
couldhave beeneatenIt could have been eaten by then.
Aware how the passive voice is formed, some proof-readers spot something that looks like the passive voice, circle it with their red pen and then annotate it with something like "PV reword".

Here's an example of something that looks like passive voice but isn't:
  • I always wanted to be somebody, but now I realize I should have been more specific. (Actress Lily Tomlin)
  • (There is no past participle after have been.)
Here's an example of something that looks a lot like passive voice but isn't:
  • All the mistakes I have ever made in my life have been when I have been drunk. (Artist Tracy Emin)
  • (There is no past participle after have been. Here, drunk is an adjective and not part of the verb, even though drunk is the past participle of to drink. Confused? Think of it like this: the subject of the verb (I) is not being acted upon.)
This is passive voice:
  • I have been drunk under the table by Russian sailors.
  • (Here, the subject of the verb (I) is being acted upon. "The Russian sailors drank me under the table" is an active-voice version.)
Here's another example of something that looks a lot like passive voice but isn't:
  • Europeans were scared of eating tomatoes when they were introduced.
  • (Were is in the active voice. Were introduced is in the passive voice. Here, were scared looks like it's in the passive voice, especially because scared is the past participle of to scare. However, scared is not part of the verb in this example. It's an adjective meaning afraid.)
So, it's quite understandable why some proof-readers confuse passive voice and active voice that features the verb "to be" in one of its forms. Here's a pretty good trick, and it's fun.

If you can include the term "by zombies" after your verb and it still makes sense, then you're dealing with the passive voice. (Thanks to Dean of Academics and Deputy Director Rebecca Johnson for this tip.)
  • The car could have been stolen…by zombies.
  • (This makes sense. Therefore, have been stolen is in the passive voice.)
  • The car could have been illicit…by zombies.
  • (This makes no sense. Therefore, have been illicit is in the active voice.)
Anyway, now we can spot the passive voice, we need to decide whether it's something to be avoided. The benefits of active voice are worth having, but the benefits of passive voice are too. Here are four good reasons to use the passive voice.
  • (Reason 1) The passive voice can be used to avoid blame.
  • (Reason 2) The passive voice shows a neutral or objective tone.
  • (Reason 3) The passive voice is often appropriate when the doer of the verb is obvious, unimportant or unknown.
  • (Reason 4) The passive voice allows you to focus on what's important by bringing it to the front of your sentence.
Each of these benefits is explained in more detail in the entry for passive sentences.

As a native English speaker, you're probably already great at deciding between active and passive voice. You are pretty safe to let your instinct guide you, but, as a general rule, you should try to use the active voice unless you specifically want one of the benefits offered by the passive voice.

Here's a great example of proof-readers trying way too hard to avoid the passive voice:
  • When the author of Diabetes for Dummies (Dr Alan Rubin) wrote "The patient was comatose and was given thyroid hormone", his editors changed it to "The patient was comatose and took thyroid hormone". In response to this edit, Rubin said: "These are extremely sick patients. They can't take care of themselves. They have to be passive whether Wiley [style guide] likes it or not."
  • (Better a passive sentence than an inappropriate one.)

Key Points

  • Develop a bias for active sentences over passive sentences because active sentences are shorter, more direct, more informative, more authoritative and easier to absorb.
  • Don't be dogmatic about using active sentences though because passive sentences are also useful for avoiding blame, portraying a neutral tone and focussing on the recipient of the action of a verb rather than the doer.
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