Writing and Grammar Skills Appendix

Grammar Skills: Active and Passive Voice

ACTIVE VOICE

PASSIVE VOICE

SIMPLE PRESENT

I paint my living room every year.

My living room is painted every year.

SIMPLE PAST

I painted my living room yesterday.

My living room was painted yesterday.

SIMPLE FUTURE

I will paint my living room.

My living room will be painted.

PRESENT PROGRESSIVE

I am painting my living room now.

My living room is being painted now.

PAST PROGRESSIVE

I was painting my living room yesterday when I saw a mouse run across the floor.

My living room was being painted yesterday when I saw a mouse run across the floor.

FUTURE PROGRESSIVE

I will be painting my living room when my husband comes home tomorrow.

My living room will be being painted when my husband comes home tomorrow.

PRESENT PERFECT

I have painted my living room twice.

My living room has been painted twice.

PAST PERFECT

I had already painted my living room by the time my husband came home.

My living room had already been painted by the time my husband came home.

FUTURE PERFECT

I will have painted my living room by the time my husband comes home tomorrow.

My living room will have been painted by the time my husband comes home tomorrow.

PRESENT PERFECT PROGRESSIVE

I have been painting my living room for two hours.

My living room has been being painted for two hours.

PAST PERFECT PROGRESSIVE

I had been painting my living room for two hours.

My living room had been being painted for two.

FUTURE PERFECT PROGRESSIVE

I will have been painting my living room for two hours.

My living room will have been being painted for two hours.

GERUND

I need to paint my living room.

My living room needs to be painted.

INFINITIVE

Painting a living room takes a long time.

Being painted is not what I expected to happen to me.

Active voice is usually how verbs are used in a sentence when the subject of the sentence performs an action, and sometimes an object receives the result of the action.

Example: The dog chased the cat.

Passive voice changes the object of a sentence into the subject and also changes the verb form with it. This is by adding a form of “be” and a past participle. Sometimes the subject of the active sentence becomes the “agent” using “by”.

Example: The cat was chased by the dog.

The two example sentences here have the same meaning. Then why are there two different ways to say the same thing?

Active and passive are voices because the meaning may be the same, but the emphasis is not. Although many English teachers advise against using passive voice, there are many reasons it is a useful grammatical structure.

  • When the “agent” is unknown:
    • Three million dollars were stolen from the bank.
  • When the “agent” is obvious or unimportant:
    • Your package was delivered at 6:30 pm.
  • To focus on the receiver of the action, often inanimate:
    • A pink ribbon was placed around the cute kitten’s neck.
  • To focus more on the action rather than the subject doing the action, such as giving instructions or explaining processes:
    • The pizza must be baked at 400 F for 25 minutes.
  • To avoid blame:
    • “Mistakes were made” is a famous quote by President Ronald Reagan.

Passive is used often in writing in these disciplines:

  • Lab reports:
    • In the study, 300 participants were given a questionnaire about their eating habits.
  • News reports:
    • Three people were killed and one child was badly injured in a collision between two cars on Highway 40 yesterday.
  • Scientific research:
    • Animal studies have been used for decades to understand various physiological and behavioral phenomena, including the factors involved in drug addiction.
  • Instructions:
    • The coffee beans are then ground into a powder before being brewed.

In general, passive voice is more often used in writing about topics that do not focus on people or receivers of actions.

Practice 1

Discuss with a classmate the following passive sentences and the sentences above in the example. Why are they preferably in passive voice?

  1. The First Tennessee Bank was robbed last night at 3:45 am.
  2. In this experiment, the eggs were placed in vinegar overnight.
  3. After that, chunks of graphite (a soft, dark mineral) and clay are placed inside a huge rotating drum. Large rocks inside the drum crush the graphite and clay into a fine powder. Then water is added, and the mixture is blended in the drum for up to three days.
  4. All the fruit in the pantry is covered in mold.
  5. Somehow the window had been broken.

Practice 2

Discuss with a classmate the following topics. Do you expect these topics to have more or less passive voice used in their explanation?

  1. The history of the banana
  2. Red pandas
  3. My best friend’s wedding
  4. My best friend
  5. Emojis
  6. Chocolate: from tree to store
  7. Rainbows

For each of the topics above, write on a separate sheet of paper one active and one passive sentence. Share your sentences with a partner and compare your sentences.

Sentences should only be made passive for the reasons mentioned above, but sometimes sentences cannot be made passive. That is because if a sentence does not have an object, it cannot be made passive. Some verbs are intransitive–that means they cannot be changed into passive. I could give you a long list of intransitive verbs, but it would be much easier to just not try to make sentences passive if they don’t have an object. Let’s practice so you can see what I mean.

Practice 3

Make the following sentences passive, if possible. If it’s not possible, why is it not? Is the agent necessary to the meaning, or can it be deleted? Also, think about whether the sentence would be better active or passive, or if it doesn’t matter in the current context. Last, make sure your form of “be” matches the verb tense used in the active sentence.

  1. Paul McCartney and John Lennon wrote the song “Let It Be.”
  2. People in Saudi Arabia speak Arabic.
  3. The scientist used an EKG machine to check the participant’s heart after exercising.
  4. Someone stole my phone.
  5. The mailman already delivered the mail.
  6. Did your parents teach you to read?
  7. Someone has taken her to the hospital.
  8. Many artists have covered the song “Yesterday.”
  9. Students should turn in their homework on time.
  10. Michael Jackson died in 2009.
  11. An earthquake occurred yesterday.
  12. I didn’t sleep well last night.
  13. My wallet fell out of my bag.
  14. Someone has to stay here.
  15. Many people saw the game.

 

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It’s All Greek to Me! by Charity Davenport is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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