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Active and Passive


Why study voice?

In English, voice is used to tell whether the subject of the sentence performs the action of the verb (i.e. is the doer), or receives it. This kind of contrast is represented in either of two ways.

As shown in the diagram, the first type of construction is known as the active voice. The second is the passive voice. Note the changes in the clause structure and verb forms, as voice changes.


Modified from: Crystal, D. (2003). Rediscover grammar. (3rd ed.). UK: Peason, p96.

The main problems in the use of voice relate to the following:

  •    when to use the active or passive voice
  •    how to construct passive forms correctly

In most academic writing, both active and passive are used. The important thing is NOT to move from active to passive randomly. When you use active or passive voice depends on where you want to put the focus: on the doer or performer of the action OR the result or receiver of the action. For example, both these statements are correct:

Albert Einstein laid the foundations of two fundamental theories of the twentieth century: relativity and quantum theory. [active]

The foundations of two fundamental theories of the twentieth century, relativity and quantum theory, were laid by Albert Einstein. [passive]

Study the use of both active and passive voice in an extended text:

Robots are used (passive) extensively in industrial engineering. They allow (active) businesses to save money on labour and to ensure better quality. Many companies employ (active) assembly lines of robots, and some factories are so robotised that they can run(active) by themselves. Outside the factory, robots have been employed (passive) in bomb disposal, space exploration, and many other fields. Robots are sold (passive) for various residential applications.

Text from Retrieved 6 November 09. 



Select either the Active or Passive Voice to complete each of the following sentences.

1   Mr Green was given an Honorary degree in Literature by the University of Auckland last year.

2   The main theme that is depicted in the film is the status of child abuse in New Zealand.

3   The company may give all its employees a bonus at the end of the year.

4   The lecturer will discuss the assignment at the tutorial tomorrow.

5   By the time the police arrived, the matter had been resolved .

6   The committee is considering the proposal.

7   Nobody has said anything about the accident since it happened a week ago.

8   When the patient admitted to A & E, she was given a sedative to calm her. 

9   Doctors are running tests to determine the cause of her illness.

10 Nothing has been said about the accident since it happened a week ago.

11 Figure 1 shows that there is a lot of support for a new New Zealand flag.

10 Many arguments have been put forward to support the new tax cut proposal.


The Active Vocie is sometimes preferred because it is more direct and more effective. For example, this sentence,

         Haiti has suffered the biggest disaster in history. (active voice) 

is a more effective sentence than

        The biggest disaster in history has been suffered by Haiti.  (passive voice)

So how do you decide when to use the active and when to use the passive?

Here are some useful guidelines:

Use the active voice if

  • the subject of the sentence performs the action expressed by the verb, e.g.

            Madame Curie (subject) discovered radium in 1898.

            Parents (subject) all over the country are marching in protest of the 'Smacking Bill'.

  • you want to emphasise the subject and what it does.

Use the passive voice when

  • you want to focus on the receiver or result of the action e.g. The data were collected and compared.
  • the doer of the action is unimportant or unknown.
  • a more objective, impersonal style is preferred.
  • you want to eliminate repetition of a personal pronoun, e.g. We collected and compared the data. We then measured the . . .


Study the use of the active and passive voice in the following texts:

Nursing diagnostic report

Valine Wrenn, a 25-year old female, was seen (passive) for a speech and language evaluation at the Balmtown University Speech and hearing Clinic on April 10, 2002. She was referred (passive) to the clinic by her otolaryngologist, Dr Eismer. Her presenting complaints were (active) difficulty speaking loudly and difficulty speaking for long periods. Dr Eismer also noted (active) a 'lack of excitement' in Valine's voice and difficulty producing sounds at the end of sentences caused by a low pitch. Valine came (active) to the clinic herself and provided (active) all the information.

Text source: Grice, T. (2003). Everyday English in nursing. UK: Elsevier Limited.

Description of a Process: Combustion

When a substance combines (active) with oxygen, it is always oxidised (passive), and heat energy is given (passive) off. If the combustion is so rapid that light energy as well as heat energy is produced, the process is known as combustion (passive). The heat of the reaction gives (active) off gases vaporised (passive) from the combustible substance, and these gases burn (active) in the form of a flame.

 Source: Williams, R. (1978). Spotlight: Technical English for Asia. Hong Kong: Longman.  (p. 53.)


A question of focus and logical flow

The important thing is not to 'translate' deliberately from active to passive because you feel that the passive must be used.  Sometimes to improve the logical flow of ideas, you have to be consistent.

Look at these two sentences in the same text:

          The Curries worked together in Paris. They discovered radium in 1898.

The use of the active voice in the second sentence follows logically from the focus on the 'doers' of the verb 'discovered' in the first sentence.  The flow is less logical in the following text:

          The Curries worked together in Paris. Radium was discovered by them in 1898.

In technical writing, the active/passive ratio is probably 1:2, because technical writing tends to focus on the result of the action, rather than on who or what causes the action. However, not ALL scientific writing must be in the passive.


Special cases

•   Some verbs usually appear in the passive: convert (is converted),  activate (is activated), attribute (is attributed to), conduct (is conducted by), examine, measure, record, deduct.

•   Some verbs cannot be transferred into the passive: resemble (*is resembled), consist (*is consists of); look like (*is look like),  become (*is become), lack (*is lack).


Learn the passive voice constructions in verb tenses: Click to view an Active and Passive Chart

Identify each sentence as either active or passive.

1 According to a new study published in 'Science', the math gender gap has vanished.

2 A novel way to lose weight has been discovered at Duke Children Children's Hospital by Dr Sarah Armstrong, director of the Healthy Lifestyles Program.

3 People with diabetes have a higher risk of developing Alzheimer's disease.

4 A total of 800 homes were destroyed in the counties surrounding Los Angeles.

5 Thousands of residents were forced to evacuate.

Select the correct passive construction for each of the following active sentences:

1. Cyclone Katrina flattened the city in a matter of seconds.

2. The police had arrested many people for looting.

3. The aid workers did not speak the local language.

4. Cyclone Katrina has made thousands homeless.

5. The global community is donating millions of dollars in aid to rebuild the city.

6. The government will withdraw its financial support for New Zealand's challenge in the America's Cup in 2015.

Change each of the following into passive to put emphasis on the result of the action.

Example: The computer stores information. -----> Information is stored in the computer.


1.     The brain stores information.

2.     The brain altersorganises, and transfers information into one or more memory stores.

3.     A cellphone network can overcome the problem of a lack of suitable frequencies.

4.     Samuel Morse first developed the telegraph in 1832.

5.     Places such as airports, supermarkets, and hospitals use automatic doors.

6.     Fletcher Challenge Limited is building the new underpass linking the hospital to the School of Medicine.

7.     A short circuit in one of the engines has caused the fire.

8.     The university will pass a new code of ethics for engineers next year.

9.     They may spend an additional two million dollars on upgrading Eden Park.

10.   They should finish the project by the end of 2010.


Challenge Tasks

Correct any faulty use of the active or passive forms in the bolded expressions in the following text:

Text 1: Ethics in Decision Making

In recent years, there has been a growing recognition of the need to explicitly consider ethical issues when engaging in decision making. It has been estimate that over two-thirds of larger firms have a code of ethics and 44 percent of larger firms provide some form of ethics training for their managers. This interest in being ethical stems from a desire to avoid legal action and the resulting adverse public reaction, as well as from a desire to satisfy concerns of personal conscience.  Ethical conduct is believe to offer a strategic advantage over competitors. Ethical training is intended to aid decision making by helping people recognize ethical aspects of decisions.

Most ethics training programs include statements from the top officer emphasizing the importance of ethical decision making, discussion of the corporation's code of ethics, and discussion of specific procedures for reporting unethical conduct. Many programs incorporate case discussion, exercises for developing higher levels of ethical maturity and discussion of ethical frameworks for analyzing decisions. The cases that are discussed are often create from actual corporate specific instances of difficult decision making. Efforts to raise the ethical maturity of managers have often rely on Kohlberg's theory of moral development. Although evidence is limit, there is some suggestion that individuals who are expose to ethical training may show evidence of higher moral reasoning.

Modified from: Vecchio, R. P. (2000). Organisational Behaviour: Core Concepts. (4th ed.). Orlando, FL: Harcourt, Inc. (p. 204).


Correct any faulty use of the active or passive forms in the bolded expressions in the following text:

Text 2: Electoral systems 

Legislature is the lawmaking branch of a government and the main objective is passing laws. In order to choose members of the legislature, an election is held in most countries. Electoral systems can categorise into two general systems: proportional representation (PR) and non-proportional representation (NPR) According to Duverger's Law, the NPR favours a two-party system while PR tends to lead to a multi-party system. Advocates of PR are claimed it ensures a fairer distribution of legislative seats to constituencies that may deny representation under NPR. Proponents of NPR argue, however, that the most important criterion is government effectiveness in the legislature. In contrast, PR closely associates with a coalition government. 

The legislature is based on the idea of representing the people. Therefore, the legislature should compose of a variety of representatives from all social groups. Government policies should be consult thoroughly from different perspectives in order to become a good legislature. This goal of diversity is best meet by a PR electoral system.

Modified from: a student essay - modified in places to focus on this grammar feature. Used with permission of student.


Correct any faulty use of the active or passive forms in the bolded expressions in the following text:

Text 3: What is stress?

The term stress has been defined in several different ways. Sometimes the term is apply to stimuli or events that make physical demands on people, and sometimes it applies to emotional and physical reactions to such stimuli. In this paper, the environmental stimuli or events refer to as stressors and the emotional and physical reactions as stress. Many kinds of events can be stressors, including disasters such as hurricanes or tornadoes, major life events such as divorce or the loss of a job. What all these events have in common is that they interfere with or threaten people's accustomed way of life.

The Canadian physiologist Hans Seyle has been the most influential researcher and writer on stress. Seyle has been proposed that both humans and other animals react to any stressor in three stages, which are collectively know as the general adaptation syndrome. The first stage, when the person or animal first is becomes aware of the stressor, is the alarm reaction. After the alarm reaction comes the stage of resistance, as the organism tries to adapt to the stressful stimulus or to escape from it.  If the organism cannot adapt to continuing stress, however, it enters a stage of exhaustion or collapse. 

Modified from: Seal, B. (1997). Academic Encounters: Reading, Study Skills, and Writing. Content Focus: Human Behaviour. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (p. 5-6).


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