Many writers think that the distinction between the active and passive voice is to do with the strength of the words and that passive language uses vague, bureaucratic words. The passive voice often does sound pompous, but the distinction is a ‘whodunnit’ of the verb.
If the subject performs the action, the voice is active. If we don’t know who (or what) is performing the action – or the doer comes after the verb – the voice is passive.
The auditors made a mistake. (active)
A mistake was made. (passive)
A mistake was made by the auditors. (passive)
There are times when the active voice definitely sounds better than the passive. Compare:
The transaction costs will be minimised through agreements with fund managers.
Agreements with fund managers will minimise the transaction costs.
How to identify the passive voice
- Find the verb and ask ‘who or what performed the action? – if the ‘who or what that performed the action’ is before the verb, the voice is active.
- Look for the word by after a verb (The action was performed by management = passive.)
- Look for extra verbs in the sentence structure – is found, are found, was found, were found, will be found, have been found, should be found. This won’t always work as the verb may be part of a verb tense (We are making progress.)
Techniques for changing the active to the passive
- Change the word order
Passive: The memo was sent by the manager.
Active: The manager sent the memo.
- Supply a ‘doer’ for the verb
Passive: The method was ruled out.
Active: The manager ruled out the method.
- Replace a passive verb with an active one
Passive: The heated water is sent into the pipes.
Active: The heated water flows into the pipes.