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Making a passive sentence active

The difference between active and passive voice is simply this: in active voice, the subject is the doer of the action, while in passive voice, the subject is the receiver of the action.

In most cases, writing in the active voice makes it easier for readers to understand your message because the sentence is written in a logical order:

doer of action + action + receiver of action (if any)

When this order is changed, as it is in passive voice, the message is less straightforward and therefore less clear and effective.

How do I recognize passive voice?

There are three signs that will help you recognize a sentence in passive voice:

  1. The subject is not doing the action.
  2. The verb is always a form of be + a past participle (often ending in -ed):

    are groomed
    were painted
    will be destroyed
    is being recorded
    was being made (irregular past participle)
    have been invented
    had been written (irregular past participle)

  3. Often the doer of the action is expressed in a prepositional phrase starting with by:

    by Thomas
    by the students
    by the sculptor

These three signs will help you identify passive voice sentences in your own writing. It is often better to rewrite passive sentences to make them active. (For exceptions to this rule, follow the link to Active vs. passive voice at the end of this article.)

How do I change a passive voice sentence to active voice?

Here is an example of a sentence in passive voice:

The novel Obasan was written by Joy Kogawa.

To change this sentence from passive to active voice, follow these three steps:

Step 1. Begin your active voice sentence with the doer of the action. In this case, the doer of the action is Joy Kogawa (found in the phrase beginning with by):

Joy Kogawa...

Step 2. Make the verb active. To make a passive verb active, take the main verb (i.e., the last word in the verb phrase), and put it in the same tense as the helper. In this case, the main verb is write (from written); and the helper is was, which is in the simple past tense. So for the active voice verb, we want the verb write in the simple past tense—in other words, wrote:

Joy Kogawa wrote...

Step 3. Finally, put the novel Obasan (the subject of the passive voice sentence) after the verb, since it is the receiver of the action:

Joy Kogawa wrote the novel Obasan.

The resulting sentence is in the active voice. You can follow the same steps to turn any sentence from passive to active voice.

Note: If a sentence does not contain a phrase beginning with by, you have to use logic to find the doer of the action:

The crime will be solved quickly.

Solved by whom? By the police. Then police is the doer of the action:

The police will solve the crime quickly.

Watch carefully for passive sentences because they are easy to miss—even experienced writers let them slip into their writing. Check each sentence to find the doer of the action and then follow these simple steps to make your writing clearer and easier to understand for your readers.