When you study English grammar, and more specifically Verbs, you will come across a section called Voice. Here, you will learn the difference between Active Voice and Passive Voice. Let’s check out what they are and how to use Active and Passive Voice in different situations.
Voice and Verbs
Verbs are the action words in a sentence and they have several characteristics, such as the tense, the number, the person and the voice. The Voice of the sentence or the verb is connected with who is doing the action of the verb.
What is Active Voice / What is Passive Voice
Voice relates to the verb in a sentence and informs whether the action done by the subject is an active one or a passive one.
- Every verb has a subject in the sentence, whether explicitly mentioned or otherwise.
For instance: The cat bit the rat. Here, ‘bit’ is the action and the verb in the sentence. The Cat is the subject of the sentence. ‘Sit Down’ – here the verb is to sit, but who is supposed to sit down? It has not been mentioned, but has to be understood that ‘You’ sit down.
- In the first sentence above, the cat is doing the action of biting. Hence the sentence is in Active voice.
- However, if we convert the sentence to ‘The ball was bitten by the cat’. The meaning continues to remain the same, but the subject here is the ball and not the cat. Here, the subject ‘ball’ is not doing the action, but rather the action is being done to the subject by the object, the cat. This sentence is in Passive Voice.
- In short, if the subject is doing the action in the sentence, the sentence is said to be in Active Voice. If the subject is having an action done on it then the sentence is said to be in Passive Voice.
You can use the Passive Voice to get out of trouble, by leaving out the subject! 🙂 Instead of saying, I have committed an error, say ‘An error has occurred’.
Active Voice vs Passive Voice Examples and Differences
Consider these examples to better understand the difference between Active Voice and Passive Voice.
- Monkeys love bananas (This is one of the active voice examples). Bananas are loved by monkeys.
The verb in both these sentences is ‘love’. In the first sentence, Monkeys is the subject and the action of ‘love’ is being done by the subject. Hence it is in Active Voice. However, in the second sentence the subject is Bananas, and it is not the Bananas who are doing the action of love. In fact, the action is being done to the subject. Hence, the second sentence is in the Passive Voice.
- The dog chased the cat. The cat was chased by the dog.
The verb in both these sentences is the action ‘chased’. In the first sentence, the dog is the subject and the subject is doing the action of chasing. In the second sentence, the subject is the cat. However, the cat is not doing the action of chasing, but it is being chased by the dog. Hence, the second is in the Passive Voice.
Difference in Usage – Passive and Active Voice
While debating over Passive and Active Voice, it is normally considered appropriate to use the Active Voice. However, there are exceptions and occasions when it is better to use the Passive Voice.
- The Active Voice emphasises the person or doer of the action. The Passive Voice emphasises the recipient of the action.
- Use the Active Voice when the doer of the action is more important and needs more importance than the person/thing on which the action is done. Let’s look at an example.
- The boy threw the ball. The ball was thrown by the boy. (The second is one of the passive voice examples)
Grammatically speaking, both sentences are correct. However, it is better to use the first Active Voice in this case. This is because it is shorter, more direct and stronger than the second Passive Voice. When considering active vs passive voice, the Passive Voice in such cases just makes the sentence longer without adding any other nuance to it.
- Someone stole my watch yesterday. My watch was stolen yesterday.
Again, grammatically speaking, both sentences are correct. The first is in the Active Voice and the second in the Passive. However, in this case, it is better to use the Passive Voice or the second sentence. Here’s why! The subject or the person who has stolen the watch is not known, so the action becomes more important than the person who has done it. In such cases, where the subject is unknown, it is preferable to use the Passive Voice.
- Someone/The government is building a new road in the city. A new road is being built in the city.
Here again, the first sentence is in the Active Voice and the second in the Passive. The second is preferable, as the person or persons building it are rather abstract and not known, and the action of building a new road takes precedence over the builder!
The Active Voice has a strong and clear tone, whereas the Passive Voice is subtler and somewhat weaker.
Differences in Construction of Active Voice and Passive Voice
There is also a constructional difference between the two Voices.
- The Passive Voice always contains the phrase ‘by the’. For instance:
The girl drank the milk. The milk was drunk by the girl. The second sentence, which is in Passive Voice, contains the ‘by the’ phrase.
- In some cases, the phrase ‘by the’ is not mentioned, but it is nevertheless understood.
The government is building a road. A road is being built. (by the government – is understood)
- The doer of the action is placed before the Verb, in Active Voice. The doer of the action is placed after the Verb in Passive Voice.
The dog chased the squirrel. The squirrel was chased by the dog. In both the cases, the dog is the doer of the action, but it is placed before ‘chased’ in the Active Voice and after ‘chased’ in the Passive Voice.
- There is a tense usage difference between the Active Voice and Passive Voice. For instance:
I am reading a book. A book is being read by me. The tense used in both sentences is Present Continuous, but the Passive voice tense construction is different.
Do not use the Passive Voice just because it sounds fancier or different. Use it only when it is called for, when you want to focus on the action rather than the doer of the action.
Conclusion – Passive Vs Active Voice
Though it is grammatically correct to use either the Passive Voice or the Active Voice in a sentence, Passive Voice is generally discouraged, as it takes away the importance of the doer of the action.
Passive Voice creates an awkward sentence and a wordier one. Yet, Passive Voice also has its uses, as can be seen from above. One of the important grammar aspects is changing the voice from Active to Passive. But that’s another topic for another day:)!