Don’t be passive; get active!

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This month, we’re having a look at the passive and active voice in your writing. If you haven’t heard about the passive and active voice before, that’s ok – let’s jump in and find out what it’s all about.

To understand the difference, you’ll need to understand some basic grammar terms. A little boring, maybe (I mean, not for me, I’m a grammar nerd and proud of it!), but an important skill for any writer is knowing how to pull a sentence apart and look at the pieces. So, let’s look at these parts of a sentence first.

Verb: A word that shows actions, emotions or states of being. Verbs are the core of sentences; if there’s no verb, it’s not a complete sentence. 

Examples: 

  • They walked to the football oval. 
  • dance in ballet slippers.
  • Aunty Tonya visits my school
  • The dog gave my friend the ball.

Subject – The subject is the ‘naming part’ of a sentence. It shows what the sentence is about, or who or what is performing an action: Examples: 

  • They walked to the football oval.
  • I dance in ballet slippers.
  • Aunty Tonya visits my school.
  • The dog gave my friend the ball.

Object: The word that the verb is doing the action to. 

  • They walked to the football oval.
  • I dance in ballet slippers.
  • Aunty Tonya visits my school.
  • The dog gave my friend the ball.

What’s the active voice?

A sentence is written in the active voice when the subject of the sentence is performing the action

For example: Mum (the subject) ate (the verb – the action) my toast (the object).

In this sentence, ‘Mum’ is the subject, ‘ate’ is the verb and ‘my toast’ is the object. Mum is the one doing the action – eating your toast.

Sentences written in the active voice are more powerful and easier to understand.

What’s the passive voice?

In the passive voice, the sentence is structured a little differently. A sentence is written in the passive voice when the subject of the sentence has something done to it by someone or something.

For example: My toast (has now become the subject) was eaten (the verb – the action) by Mum.

In this sentence, ‘My toast’ has become the subject which is having something done to it by Mum. Maybe Mum will get her own toast next time. 

It gets a little murky when you write in the passive voice. Passive sentences can be overly long, difficult to understand and make your stories a little less exciting because the action is taken away from the subject. 

How to spot the passive voice:

There are some keywords to look out for if you’re trying to avoid using the passive voice:

  • is – is looking; is viewed
  • was – was changed; was spoken to 
  • were – were eaten; were hugged

Is it wrong to be passive?

No. Let’s be perfectly clear. Using the passive voice is not wrong. There are places when using the passive voice is the right thing to do. For example:

  1. When it is not important who the doer is: The books were put away, the dog had his temperature taken.
  2. When we don’t know or have forgotten who did the action: The doctor was murdered, my car has been stolen.
  3. When the action is more interesting than who did it: The school is being shut down, the skate park is being rebuilt.

When your sentence has a doer, it’s easy to tell that it’s active: ‘My toast was eaten by Mum’ is the passive form – ‘Mum ate my toast’ is the active form.

But when there is no doer, it can get a little confusing. 

The Zombies Did It!…

When I was at university learning how to write, I had a very clever teacher who taught me about passive zombies. Believe it or not, zombies can help you work out if a sentence is passive or active. How? Just ask them if they did it!

If you can finish a sentence with ‘…by zombies’, it is in the passive form.

For example:

  • The door was left open….by zombies.
  • When I went back into the school, the whiteboard had been wiped clean…by zombies.
  • I didn’t get a piece of the cake because it had all been eaten…by zombies! 

Let’s pretend that your best friend was the one who left the door open, wiped the board clean and ate all the cake. See if you can rewrite those sentences into an active voice.

You’ll need those sentences for the writing contest, so have a good go at it!

Get Active!

Did you notice that using an active voice makes your writing easier to understand and more exciting? And even though using the passive voice is not incorrect, changing passive sentences to active sentences will keep your writing clear and exciting to your readers. 

In short, if you can get active, get active!

Need more practice? 

Have a go at changing the following sentences from passive to active, and find the answers here.

  1. The letter was written by Mahir.
  2. French lessons will be given to you by Mr Dyer.
  3. Breakfast is eaten every morning by Javier at 7.00 am.
  4. The jungle is prowled by panthers.
  5. The poster was ruined by you!
  6. A movie is being watched by us.
  7. The dishwasher is emptied every morning by me.
  8. Even our silly questions are answered by the teacher.
  9. The whole town was destroyed by fire.
  10. Half a cookie was given to me by Kingsley.

1 thought on “Don’t be passive; get active!

  1. […] you notice that using an active voice makes your writing easier to understand and more exciting? And even though using the passive voice […]

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