Active vs. Passive Voice/Activities
Before you can purposefully structure your writing in the active (or passive) voice, you must be able to understand which elements of each sentence comprise the subject and object. Once you are able to do this, you will be able to re-order your sentences to write in the style that is most appropriate for the situation.
Recall from the pre-class activity that in the active voice, the subject of the sentence performs the action on the object, whereas in the passive voice, the subject of the sentence is acted upon (it effectively does nothing itself).
A handy hint: let the verb point the way
To know what the action in the sentence is, just focus on how the verb (the doing word) explains the content in the sentence. For example, consider the following sentence.
“Pests destroy crops.”
- Look for the verb first
- Find the subject and object by considering whether the action in the verb is being actively or passively performed.
“Pests destroy crops.”
In the above example, the action of the verb (from ‘to destroy’) is being actively performed (these pests are doing the destroying in this sentence). This is therefore an active voice sentence.
For it to be passive, the action of the verb would have to be performed on the subject (the pests would not directly be doing the destroying). For example: “My crops were destroyed by pests.”
Activity 1 (work alone or together, 10 minutes)
For each of the five sentences below, identify the verb before also identifying the subject and object. Then use this information to decide whether the sentence is written in the active or passive voice. You can work alone or with a partner in this activity.
- Over 60 million years ago, a very large meteorite crashed into Earth.
- The exact location of the impact is still debated by some scientists.
- However, most experts think the crash site is in Mexico.
- The extinction of the dinosaurs is attributed by many palaeontologists to the impact.
- Dinosaurs would have been affected by sudden changes in temperature, and meteorologists recently showed that the earth’s climate changed considerably at this time.
Activity 2 (work alone or together, 15 minutes)
Below are five more sentences, but this time they are all written in the passive voice. Re-write them in the active voice and try to reduce the length of the sentences by at least a few words in each case (one benefit of using the active voice).
- The mice were kept in controlled conditions by the experimenters before they were removed from their cages and placed on an exercise wheel.
- Each mouse was weighed by the same experimenters before and after it was placed on the exercise wheel.
- After 12 weeks had passed, each mouse was randomly placed in one of two treatment groups; in all cases, a die was rolled by an experimenter for each mouse and if it landed on an even number the mouse was placed in the group that received a pill.
- If the die landed on an odd number, the mouse was placed in the treatment group that received a placebo, which was designed by the research team to look like the pill.
- Following another 12 weeks in their different treatment groups, each mouse was weighed again by the experimenters and average weight gain (g) was calculated by using a calculator.
* Note: There will be a brief class regroup at this stage to discuss the answers to Activities 1 and 2 *
Activity 3 (work alone, 5 minutes)
Sentences written in the active voice generally grab attention more effectively than those written in the passive voice. When people first write essays, however, they typically produce a rough draft that features all their ideas in some form of ordered chaos, rather than worrying too much about their grammar. They then edit their work to make sure the sentences, paragraphs and transitions (remember Unit 1) fit together to make a coherent argument.
Now it is time to begin thinking about editing from the perspective of writing in the style of voice that best suits the situation. To highlight the importance of this, try to write 5-6 sentences about the best science lecture you ever attended. You only have a few minutes to do this, so just write down your sentences without thinking too much about the grammar.
Activity 4 (work together, 5 minutes)
Choose a partner (or work in groups of 3 to make sure nobody is on their own) and swap your worksheets. Now work through each sentence and highlight whether it is written in the active or passive voice. When you are finished, hand it back to the author and discuss with him/her whether you both agree on the decisions you have made.
Activity 5 (work alone, 10 minutes)
Once you have agreed which style of voice you have written each sentence in, try to re-write them in the opposite style. So, for example, if you have written your first sentence in the passive voice, re-write it in the active voice to practice using both styles (Note: This is just to make you more comfortable in using both).
Activity 6 (optional, work alone)
By now, you should have one active and one passive version of each sentence. Spend some time looking at each pair and decide which style is most appropriate. This little exercise should hopefully show you the importance of re-reading and editing your sentences from this perspective to make sure they each have maximum impact.
For more help with the active and passive voice
If you are still confused about the differences between the active and passive voice, you are encouraged to view the helpful guide on this subject published by the Purdue Online Writing Lab.