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Active and Passive
 

The Active

We say things in the active voice when we want to show who or what has done something. In the active voice the agent (the person or thing that does something) becomes the subject of the sentence.

For example:

"She cleaned the office." (Who cleaned the office? She did=the subject)

"He stole my car." (Who stole my car? He did=the subject)

The Passive

The passive voice is used when the subject of a sentence is the person or thing affected by the action of the sentence.

We particularly use the passive voice when we don't know or aren't bothered exactly who has done something. This is called passive without agent where the recipient of the action becomes the subject.

For example:

"The office was cleaned." (What was cleaned? - The office=the subject)

"My car was stolen." (What was stolen - The car=the subject)

We often use the passive to report what someone has said but avoid who said it.

For example:

"I was told he wasn't coming."

"You were asked to bring some wine to the party."

Sometimes you may want to use the passive voice but wish to mention who carried out the action. This is called passive with agent and the agent is usually introduced with the word by.

For example:

"The office was cleaned by Mrs Smith."

Or you may use a subject such as people, someone, they etc, when you don't know who the agent is.

For example:

"The car was stolen by joyriders."

Some suggestions

1. Avoid starting a sentence in active voice and then shifting to passive.

Unnecessary shift in voice Revised
Many customers in the restaurant found the coffee too bitter to drink, but it was still ordered frequently. Many customers in the restaurant found the coffee too bitter to drink, but they still ordered it frequently.
He tried to act cool when he slipped in the puddle, but he was still laughed at by the other students. He tried to act cool when he slipped in the puddle, but the other students still laughed at him.

2. Avoid dangling modifiers caused by the use of passive voice. A dangling modifier is a word or phrase that modifies a word not clearly stated in the sentence.

Dangling modifier with passive voice Revised
To save time, the paper was written on a computer. (Who was saving time? The paper?) To save time, Kristin wrote the paper on a computer.
Seeking to lay off workers without taking the blame, consultants were hired to break the bad news. Who was seeking to lay off workers? The consultants?) Seeking to lay off workers without taking the blame, the CEO hired consultants to break the bad news.

3. Don't trust the grammar-checking programs in word-processing software. Many grammar checkers flag all passive constructions, but you may want to keep some that are flagged. Trust your judgement, or ask another human being for their opinion about which sentence sounds best.

When you can't use the passive

Intransitive verbs cannot be used in the passive. This is because they cannot have objects, and so there is nothing to become the subject of the passive sentence. For example with verbs like die or arrive.

 
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