Active or passive?

Active or Passive?

There are two adjectives that are opposite in meaning: active and passive. ‘Active’ suggests busy doing something and ‘passive’ is the very opposite because it suggests a lack of activity. When you apply these two descriptive words to people, you have in mind that an active person doesn’t sit still for a moment but is always occupied but passive people show no apparent emotion and let things happen to them.

Now if w apply these adjectives to verbs and tenses, we can see why they are described like this. We refer to a verb as either being in the Active Voice or the Passive Voice. Let’s start with the active sentence:

The car hit the barrier.

This is the standard English sentence: Subject + Verb + Object. We can of course look at the sentence in a different way and say that ‘The car’ is the agent (the doer) and the verb is the action (past simple in the active voice) and the object (barrier) is on the receiving end of the action. It is a straightforward message and no one word has greater emphasis than another. Now an example of a passive sentence:

The castle was built in 1072.

So, what is the difference? In the ‘car’ sentence we need to know both the subject and the object in order for it to make sense because we can’t just say: The car hit … In the ‘castle’ sentence we are not interested in who actually built the castle because all we want to know is when it was built. Again we can’t just say: The castle was built … It would seem that in the passive sentence it is the first word in the sentence (the subject) that is the important word and we want to know what and when something happened in relation to it. We could of course change both sentences around and say: The barrier was hit by the car. We would do that if we wanted to know why the barrier was bent and the barrier and not the car becomes the subject of our interest. In our passive sentence, which we want to make active, we need more information about who the builder was and say: The Duke of Normandy built the castle in 1072.

There are many examples in textbooks where the students have to change a sentence into the active or the passive voice. This can be a useful exercise because it can help the student in the use of different tenses and of understanding the structure of a sentence but there should be a warning. There has to be a reason for using one or other of the two ‘voices’.

To summarise we can say that the standard sentence is in the active voice when both subject and object are equally relevant. We really only need to use the passive voice if we are solely interetsed in the subject of the sentence or when the agent is unknown or unimportant.