Usage Notes

On Active and Passive Voice

It’s cut and dried until it’s not.

What to Know

Active voice indicates that the subject of a sentence is the one performing the action. Passive voice makes the subject the person or thing who received the action. Passive voice can often be identified by words such as "was" or "had been" such as in "The ball was thrown by Jerry." Although sometimes criticized for being evasive, passive voice can be useful when wanting to emphasize the action having taken place or when the agent of the action is unknown, as is often the case in news coverage.

soccer ball next to broken glass

Mistakes were made.

In English class, we are taught the difference between active and passive voice.

The active voice asserts that the person or thing represented by the grammatical subject performs the action represented by the verb.

The passive voice makes the subject the person or thing that receives the action represented by the verb.

Active voice: Jerry knocked over the lamp.

Passive voice: The lamp was knocked over by Jerry.

Both sentences describe the same action taking place—Jerry making contact with a lamp and causing it to fall over—with the first sentence making Jerry the subject and the second making the lamp the subject.

The passive voice is often distinguished by its use of a linking verb form (e.g., was, had been) followed by another verb in its past participle form (e.g., "I have been given an opportunity").

Usefulness of Passive Voice

Passive voice often gets criticized as a weak and evasive form of expression. But it is useful for those instances when you want to emphasize the fact of an action having taken place rather than who performed the action. It is also helpful for instances when the doer of an action (also known as the agent) is unknown.

Active voice: The kids have cleaned the kitchen.
Passive voice: The kitchen has been cleaned.

Active voice: We found an old car in the woods.
Passive voice: An old car was found in the woods.

[There is also the mediopassive voice, which is a whole other animal that we discuss in this article.]

In the News

The differences between active and passive voice come up as a subject for discussion in criticism of news coverage. When news media reports on incidents of crime, for example, they will often use headlines that feature the passive voice: “Man (Is) Attacked on Elm Street” instead of “Person Attacks Man on Elm Street.”

The passive voice allows for a shorter headline, but more pertinently, it puts up front information that is known. In many cases, especially in stories involving crime, the fact of the crime being committed, and whom it was committed against, is known before who committed it.

The reason for the passive is therefore practical: one might not know who carried out the attack, only that someone did, and that attacker might still be at large. Even once an attacker has been identified, news writers might avoid the active voice for fear of stating what that person is accused of as fact. (Hence, “Arrest Made in Elm Street Attack”.)

The passive voice gets called out on occasion as a tool for expressing the avoidance of responsibility, like when one says “Mistakes were made” rather than “We made some mistakes.” Sometimes, as in our Elm Street example, it is criticized for placing what appears to be a burden of responsibility on the person who receives the action (i.e., the victim) rather than the person who performs it.

Confusing Active and Passive Voice

There are other instances that technically count as active voice but nonetheless use language that dissociates the performer from the action being performed.

“The lamp fell over” is active voice, but it feels like a passive statement because there is no obvious causative agent like Jerry in “Jerry knocked over the lamp.”

This occurs in news writing as well. A sentence like “a rock shattered the store’s window” is phrased in active voice—the subject is rock, the verb is shatter, and the object is window--though it might be derided as elusive because it avoids the question of who was the agent who propelled the rock that broke the glass.





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