Monday, March 3, 2014

National Grammar Day - Active vs. Passive Voice

Did you know that March 4 is National Grammar Day? It is, so I thought it would be a good time to discuss everyone's favorite grammar topic.

How much do you know about Active and Passive Voice? Just the terms make some writers cringe. What do they mean? How do they affect our writing? Turns out, they’re not as scary as they pretend to be. Here is a simple breakdown.
Active voice reflects action. It is present in a sentence where the subject acts.

Passive voice reflects being acted upon. It is seen in a sentence where the subject is acted on.

For example:

Active voice                                                                                Passive voice                     

I teach Basic Boot Camp for Writers.                               Basic Boot Camp for Writers is taught by me.      

The instructor emailed me a lesson.                                 I was emailed a lesson by the instructor.

There are a few more clues to help determine whether a sentence is written in active or passive voice. Sentences with active voice are often shorter and more direct. Passive sentences usually contain more words and lack the personality that the active voice has. They often use auxiliary or helping verbs such as is being, was, will be, etc. 

Reread the sentences above and note how the subjects are handled. Notice how the passive voice appears to take the round about way to state its point. Do the active voice sentences appear direct and concise? Which version do you prefer?                                            

Changing a sentence from passive to active voice is not that difficult. Note what was done in this example:

Passive Voice                  

The National Anthem was being sung by her.          
Active Voice                                                                         

She sang the National Anthem.    

The active subject, “She”, is acting or “singing”.  In the passive voice, “she (her)” is not taking direct action. Passive is an indirect way of saying what the active voice says. Which sounds better?

When discussing when the use of passive voice is necessary, Bruce Ross-Larson, author of Edit Yourself says,

“Some rule mongers would say that the passive voice should never be used (or would say that you should never use the passive voice). True, it generally is better to use the active voice because it is more direct and more concise. But the subject of the sentence should dictate voice. At issue is whether the subject of the sentence is the subject of the paragraph. The passive has two justifiable uses, both of which turn on whether the actor is less important than what is acted upon.”    

In other words, occasionally the passive voice works in cases like this, when the actor “He” is left out:

He adjusted the calibration to ascertain where the mechanical failure was.

Passive would change it to:

The calibration was adjusted to ascertain where the mechanical failure was.

Even with practice and good information, sometimes I get turned inside out trying to "unpassive" a sentence. Here are two links that I've found helpful:

Capital Community College Grammar Foundation - Active Versus Passive 

Grammar GirlAvoid This Common Passive Voice Mistake

More on National Grammar Day

Visit Grammar Girl's National Grammar Day page for great info, tips, activities, and links.  

Don't Forget

Stay tuned - my 5th Blogoversary events include giveaways, interviews, and a guest post.

If you or anyone you know is homeschooling, check out the Homeschool Co-ops 101 March Goodreads Giveaway in the sidebar. There are three paperback copies up for grabs! Not a homeschooler? Why not enter anyway, and donate the book to your local library. :)

Do you have trouble with active and passive voice? What helps you keep it straight?

Happy writing,

Photo credit: Stock Exchange
Post content copyright Karen Lange 2014. No part of text content may be used without prior permission from the author.


  1. Wow, national grammar day? I had no idea. Love the mini lesson, though. Something to keep an eye out for during editing, for sure.

  2. I have to admit I didn't know anything about active vs. passive voice until I read this post this morning. I learned something new today :)

  3. That is a cool day! No pun intended.

  4. Hi Karen! This is such a good description of active/passive voice. My tutor really favors the active voice, but your sharing the reasons why the passive could be better is really helpful. I don't know that I choose the voice, as much as it seems to choose me. But that doesn't mean I can't edit!

    Looking forward to your 5th anniversary. Congrats again!!

  5. Hi Karen .. I've got two days to learn all about Grammar - I need that: I am definitely a dummy when it comes to this ... anything I manage is pure luck - thankfully I am relatively lucky in this direction, but I suspect I muck around with grammar when I'm writing my posts ...

    Use to be reminded about active or passive .. and I like your examples .. cheers Hilary

  6. Good way of demonstrating the difference. I think I use active without thinking about it. Wish I did the same with showing.

  7. I liked your examples Karen. My CP had brought to my notice that I use a lot of passive voice.Nowadays, I make sure that I am using the active voice.

  8. When I first started writing, I didn't have a clue about passive and active writing. Now I find myself re-arranging sentences in books I read, making them active :o)

  9. Thank you for the examples. I've never fully understood tenses. Yes, I probably should've had a handle on that sooner.

  10. Well... I definitely learned something new today, thanks Karen!

  11. I can see why you're an instructor. :D As always, you know where the great resources are, and you're faithful to share them with us.

    Thank you.

    Happy Monday!

  12. used to write a lot of passive sentences. Now I'm more sensitive to that. Also, I have Word check it for me.

  13. Ruth,
    I know, I found out about it a year or so ago. Love the idea! Glad you enjoyed the lesson. :)

    I'm glad! I think you write with an active voice without giving it much thought. We do pick up a lot from reading other's work too. :)

    Ha - well, I hope you get a chance to check out the other links. There are some good things happening to celebrate! :)

    I really need to play with it to help remind me of the difference, and even then I still need to go over it carefully. I like the exceptions. This helps a lot too. Thanks a bunch! :)

    Well, I do not think you are a dummy at all. I think much comes from just writing and reading good writing along the way. I think you are one smart cookie, and I always enjoy your posts!:)

    Thanks! I think I do too, mostly. lol Yes, I wish showing vs. telling came easier for me too! :)

    Thank you. I'm glad you liked them. Having another set of eyes to look them over is a big help, isn't it?

    I think I remember doing some with it in school. But then it lay dormant for a number of years. So glad we have great resources to brush up on these things! :)

    If it makes you feel any better, I've just gotten a better handle on this in the last few years! :)

    I'm glad to hear that! I think we often write in active voice without even thinking, but it does help to know this. :)

    Aw, shucks. Glad it comes off in an understandable way! When I find good things, I just want to share! :)

    I've become more aware of it over the years too. You're right, Word is a big help for that. :)

    Happy writing,

  14. Hi Karen -

    Your teacher side is shining through. :)

    One resource I've found helpful is Jill Elizabeth Nelson's book on deep POV. (Sorry, the title escapes me. I have it on my Kindle.) Using deep POV helps avoid many of the pitfalls of passive voice. I used her principles in my second book. A reader commented that I'd done something different, and she enjoyed this book even more than the first one.

    5 years already? Wow, you've done so well, and I'm thrilled for you.

    Susan :)

  15. Hi Karen...I try to avoid passive tense whenever possible. In newspaper writing, editors frown on passive, so I get lots of practice striving for active! Susan

  16. Amigo, I love this lesson on active verses passive voice. But I REALLY love the pic. Beautiful and looks ready to carry me zipping through the woods here. Great links too. Thank you, my friend. You are ALWAYS helpful to my writer brain. xoxo

  17. Susan R.,
    I know the book you're talking about and can't think of the title either, lol. I have been meaning to check that one out. Thanks for your sweet words. You've been a big part of these past 5 years! :)

    Susan W.,
    Yes, I would say that your job keeps you on your toes in the active department! This is a good thing, right? :)

    I knew you would love this pic! Thought of you when I found it! :) I am glad you found this helpful. You do realize that this is how I talk myself through these grammar issues, right?


  18. This is a great post! I def learned something new today! Thank you Karen!

    New Blog Post: [Outfit Idea] A Trendy Day

  19. It is amazing what a little change in words can do to a sentence.

  20. Diana,
    Thank you! Glad you learned something. It took me a little while to get it straight. :)

    It is, isn't it? Practice helps too. :)

    Happy writing,

  21. Thanks, Karen. I needed that. My writing has gotten a bit haywire lately. :)

    Bless you!!!

  22. Ooh! A 5th anniversary? That's awesome. Yay!

    I think one of the greatest offenders of Passive vs Active is telling vs showing. I've been reading this book that I was just finding hard to get into, and then I realized why. The author was telling half the story through exposition. When it would have been so easy to show a passing guard flipping the MC off, instead she'd tell us the guards seemed disgruntled at the MC's appearance. Ug. I still like the book and the story, but it could have been so much more engaging. I think active voice is looking for opportunities to LIVE the story rather than read about it, and there's the main difference. It's easy to discern when to use passive QUICK exposition if you're focused on engaging your reader with every action.

  23. When I edit, I have to "actively" look for it--no pun intended!--and change those sentences. LOL But some sentences I keep.

  24. Hum, I thought I commented on this - gads I hope I didn't post it on someone else blog. I read this great article on passive voice. Let me see if I can find it...crude I can't find it. Wait found it. This was probalby the longest I've ever taken to comment. The site (University of NC) includes gems like:
    Not every sentence that contains a form of “have” or “be” is passive!

  25. Cheryl,
    I am glad it was helpful. I need to review it sometimes to keep it straight. :)

    This is a good point. I hadn't thought much about it in this respect. Like you, I enjoy an active or showing story versus just being told. Engaging the reader is a good thing! And so is cheese...:)

    Ha - well, we should be on our toes in this respect. And then sometimes there are instances that work passively too. :)

    This is another great point. Ross-Larson would probably agree, as do I! Will check out the link. Thanks a bunch! :)

    Happy writing,

  26. I missed it, but for a very good reason. I was ... can't remember. But I'm pretty sure it was a valid reason. LOL. Of course it wasn't. Which is why I read your blog so I can at least keep up. Thanks, Karen.

  27. Joylene,
    I can't claim I remembered beforehand - I got an email from Grammar Girl that jogged my memory! So had it not been for that, I may have missed it too. :) Good to see you!


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