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English 11-12

How to use Active Vs Passive Voice

How can I improve my English marks? Why does my writing never sound compelling? How do I study for English? These vexing questions have never failed to plague the minds of English students across the years! Read on to gain a better understanding on crucial stylistic and structural choices you should make while writing.

“This is shown in…”

“This is represented by…”

“This idea is exemplified by the author’s use of…”

If you’ve ever used the above wording in your essays, read on!

 

Writing for clarity

High school English students often include confusing expressions in their academic writing. Students are told they need to sound sophisticated, but sometimes trying to sound sophisticated can make your writing clunky.

Writing clearly is very important in your academic work. Using the smallest number of words to convey the most meaning maximises your time (especially in an exam!). The last thing you want to do is confuse your marker with long-winded sentences in the passive voice.

In this article, you will learn about the fundamental structure of a sentence, and how to capitalise on differences in the delivery of active and passive voice to greatly improve your writing skills.

So what is passive voice? To understand the difference between the active and the passive voice, we need to first understand the foundational grammar for constructing sentences.

 

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What’s in a sentence?

In order for the simplest sentence to make grammatical sense, you need two things: A subject and a main verb. The subject is the person or thing doing the action, and the main verb is the doing word that conveys the action.

For example,

Sarah went.”

In this basic sentence, “Sarah” is the subject and “went” is the main verb.

Let’s complicate things.

If the subject of the sentence is the person or thing doing the action, then the recipient of this action is what we call the object of the sentence.

For example,

Sarah picked up the bottle.”

In this simple sentence, “Sarah” is the subject, “picked up” is the main verb (technically a verbal phrase), and “the bottle” is the object of the sentence.

What Is The Difference?  Active vs Passive Voice?

The first step to mastering the conscientious use of active and passive voice is to identify when you have used the passive structure.

Let’s take the sentence above as an example.

Sarah picked up the bottle.

This sentence is in the active voice. As the subject of the sentence, “Sarah” performs the action of picking up the sentence’s object (in this case, the bottle). “Sarah” is the first term in the sentence, so we immediately know that she is performing the action.

The passive voice is when the sentence’s subject and object switch places. It is not immediately clear who or what is performing the action described by the verb, because we must read to the end of the sentence to find the subject.

Writing in the passive voice makes the sentence more wordy and potentially confusing, because the subject must be expressed in a prepositional phrase (using the word “by”). Sometimes the subject of the sentence will be left out altogether, which makes things even more confusing!

To transform the sentence above into the passive voice, we could write that:

“The bottle was picked up by Sarah.”

In everyday terms, this wording is quite odd. You probably wouldn’t ever say that “the water is being drunk by me” when you could just say “I’m drinking water”!

In the context of academic writing, students using passive voice might sound like:

“This is shown in the metaphor of the butterfly which shows the character’s willingness to change.”

The above type of academic writing is vague and unclear because the “who” or “what” doing the showing is unexpressed. What does “this” refer to? What is shown and how is it shown?

It is better to flip this sentence into active voice. You can simply say:

“This butterfly metaphor shows the character’s willingness to change.”

You can clarify your thought process by fronting your analysis.

Be sure to pay attention here. This simple yet effective tweak to an active voice will pay dividends when it comes to your writing’s clarity and integrity, and thus, will set you on a one way road to improving your English marks.

For example, say you’re writing an analysis of a speech. You might write something like:

“The author’s use of inclusive language throughout the speech has been shown to demonstrate her commitment to solidarity and togetherness.”

This isn’t great, because your reader doesn’t know who is doing the “showing” you refer to – is it you? Is it the author? Is it some other person?

A better way to phrase this would be:

“The author’s use of inclusive language demonstrates her commitment to solidarity and togetherness.”

This second example is clearer for the reader, because we’ve replaced a passive verbal phrase with the active verb “demonstrates”.

Many high school English students tend to overuse passive voice in their essay writing. As we can see in the examples above, the passive voice can make your sentences wordy and confusing. Remember that in English, your writing needs to be as concise as possible.

How can you identify the passive voice?

Two key indicators you are using the passive voice are:

  1. You have used prepositions like by, through, or in (exemplified by, represented through, shown in, highlighted by, etc.)
  2. Your main verb is a past participle construction (e.g., is shown instead of shows).

 

 

You’ve fallen for the passive trap. How do you get out?

Check in with yourself while writing.

If you’re a student who finds themselves defaulting to the passive voice when writing essays, make sure you make a conscientious shift. It always helps to always ask yourself “is this sentence in the active or passive voice?”

Practise flipping passive sentences into active sentences.

Aside from good writing, you can always spend some time practising the active voice. You can even start with the not-so-great sentences below. See if you can make these sentences as efficient as possible!

  1. This idea of not belonging is shown in the poet’s contradictory language of…
  2. The persona’s lack of understanding is exemplified by the various instances of caesura…
  3. This representation of romance is put to the test by the stubborn characterisation of the protagonist.

 

 

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Written by Deborah Prospero

Deborah Prospero is a passionate English teacher and youth advocate. With an international & global studies and languages background, Deborah is a writer with a keen interest in exploring literature, culture, and politics. She is currently the project lead for the Mami Watta Collections Journal and has had her work featured in publications like Kindling&Sage, Gelmag, KOS Magazine, and the Asian Australian Project. When not working or studying, you can find her rock climbing, beading jewellery, and playing Scrabble.

 

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