Active and Passive Sentences and Writing with Verbs

AuthorEdwin Scott Fruehwald
ProfessionLaw Professor at the University of Alabama
Use the Active Voice
Compare these sentences:
The poacher was shot by the farmer.
The farmer shot the poacher.
Which sentence sounds better?1
Most people would say that the second sentence sounds better because
it is shorter and more direct. The second sentence is in the active voice. The
sentence’s subject is doing the acting, and its structure is actor (noun)–verb–
supporting material. The rst sentence is a passive sentence; the action is
being performed on the subject. The actor appears after the verb and is
introduced by a preposition.
One way to identify the passive voice is to look for the verb “to be” fol-
lowed by the past tense. In addition, you should watch for the preposition
by. Here are some additional examples:
The deceased was stabbed by the defendant. (passive)
The defendant stabbed the deceased. (active)
The suspect was slammed against the car by the FBI agent. (passive)
The FBI agent slammed the suspect against the car. (active)
The bomb was dropped on the target by the crew. (passive)
The crew dropped the bomb on the target. (active)
It was held that the statute was unconstitutional. (passive)
The Court held the statute was unconstitutional. (active)
I hope you agree that in each pair above, the active voice sounds better. You
should hear that the active voice is more powerful. Also, active sentences are
1. As I mentioned in the Preface, you should always read your writing out loud. When you
read your writing out loud, you notice things you would have otherwise missed.
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usually shorter. As I will discuss in the next chapter, writers should avoid
unnecessary wordiness.
Effective writing uses both active and passive sentences. The passive
voice may sometimes be preferable, such as where the actor is obvious or
where the writer wants the actor to be ambiguous. Consider this example:
Mistakes were made. (In this example, the person who made the mis-
takes is hidden to de-emphasize the subject.)
Mistakes were made by Jim. (In this example, the fact that Jim made
the mistakes is de-emphasized.)
John was shot by Jim. (In this example, I wanted to emphasize John,
so I used the passive voice.)
However, overuse of the passive voice can make your writing sound overly
formal. In addition, use of the active voice emphasizes the actor. You should
only use the passive voice when you have a particular reason to do so.2
Exercise 2-1
Which of these sentences are passive?
1. Jackie argued the case for the plaintiff.
2. The judge warned John to not use profanity.
3. John was cited for contempt by the judge.
4. The judge ruled in favor of the plaintiff.
5. The decision was written by Judge Johnson.
6. James Davis was appointed to the Supreme Court.
7. Mary Johnson wrote the brief.
8. The job was completed on time.
2. My college English instructor told us that we should use the passive voice no more than
10 percent of the time. I think my rule is better because it allows for exibility.
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