The voice of a verb shows whether the subject of a sentence is doing the action or being acted upon.
- If the subject is doing the action, the sentence is in the active voice:
John will throw the ball over the fence. (John, the actor, is doing the action.)
- If the subject is being acted upon, the sentence is in the passive voice:
The ball will be thrown over the fence by John. (The ball, the subject of the sentence but not the actor, is being acted upon-by John.)
The active voice is preferred by readers and editors because it is more direct, clear, simple, concise, interesting and powerful than the passive voice.
- Passive voice is used by writers when the actor (or doer) in a sentence is less important than the action:
The machine is operated by throwing a switch. (It doesn't matter here who is throwing the switch.)
The new passwords were activated on Monday. (It doesn't matter who activated the passwords; what matters is that they were activated.)
- The passive voice may also be used appropriately when the subject of a sentence is not in a position of power or control:
Poland was invaded repeatedly during the World Wars.
The family was trapped inside the burning building.
- Still another appropriate use of the passive voice occurs when the actor is unknown:
The cars will be parked in the vacant lot across the street. (We do not know who will park the cars.)
The Marvin Davis family home was burglarized last year. (We do not know who burgled the home.)
- You may also see the passive voice used often in sports reporting as well as in historical, legal, political, and crime reporting. In some situations, the passive voice is associated with the avoidance of placing blame or responsibility for an act:
The child had been abused for several years.
- The doer of the action can be added by using a "by" phrase:
The child had been abused for several years by her uncle.
To convert the passive voice into the active voice, simply reverse the order of the actor (or doer) and the receiver of the action, and change the form of the verb accordingly:
Her uncle had abused the child for several years.
Note that in changing the voice of the verb from passive to active or vice versa, you also change the focus in the sentence. In the preceding example the focus changed from the child in the passive voice sentence to the uncle in the active voice sentence.