← Back to blog home

Using Active and Passive Voice

Posted November 29, 2018 7:10 pm
knock knock joke

Let’s talk about voice. There are two types of voice: active and passive. The difference lies in what you want to focus on, the subject or the direct object.

Most sentences you’ll see are in the active voice and are usually diagrammed as subject + verb + direct object. In academic writing, we’re taught to always use the active voice as it’s usually more direct and gets to the point faster. For example:

John plays the piano.

“John” is the subject, “plays” is the verb, and “the piano” is the direct object.

But, sometimes, it can be more impactful to use the passive voice. The passive voice takes the direct object and makes it the subject. You’ll see it used a lot in the news when they’re reporting on a story, such as, Millions (of people) were killed in the storm.

So, let’s talk about how we change between voices. If we want to take our original sentence, which was in the active voice, and change it to passive, we’re going to focus on the direct object. To change our sentence to passive voice we’ll start with:

The piano

Now what? We have to change the verb. The verb is going to change to a form of the verb “to be” plus the past participle. Forms of the verb “to be” include is, was, had been, etc. The verb in our example is in the present tense; so, we’re going to take the present tense of the verb “to be” or “is” and get the past participle of the verb “play,” which is “played”. Our sentence now looks like this:

The piano is played

Finally, we have to add the doer of the action, John. In order to do this, we use the passive agent “by” before the doer:

The piano is played by John.

We can also reverse this and change sentences from passive voice to active voice. When we do, we will not need to use the word “by”. For practice, let’s change the example from our news story, Millions of people were killed in the storm.

Who or what is doing the action? The storm. So, the storm is going to become the subject of our active voice sentence. Thus, we start with:

The storm

Now, we have to change the verb. Currently, “were killed” is the simple past of the verb “to be” plus the past participle. So, we take the simple past of the verb kill, which is killed. Our sentence now looks like this:

The storm killed

At this point, we can add the receiver of the action. What or whom did the storm kill? Millions of people. Our final sentence looks like this:

The storm killed millions of people.

It’s important to note that some sentences are impossible to change between active voice and passive voice, as they don’t have a direct object. For example:

The boat moved slowly.

“The boat” is the subject, “moved” is the verb, and “slowly” is an adverb. There is no direct object in this sentence so we can’t change it.

Since only certain sentences can be changed, think long and hard about the reaction you want to elicit from readers. When in doubt, write it out both ways. Put it away and out of mind for a week or two, then when you come back to it see which one beckons you to read on.

Once you’ve considered what voice works best for different paragraphs of your novel you’ll be well on your way to an exciting, effective page-turner. Happy writing!

← Back to blog home