It might be weird to think that writing has a voice. But, it does! There are two types of voice for our writing (whether literature, scientific writing, technical writing, blog writing—you name it!), active or passive voice. On the SHSAT revision sections, you’ll be asked to rewrite certain passages by choosing from best answers. You’ll need to know how voice can impact the emphasis of a text so you can pick out the best choice.
In an active voice, the subject (the person or thing doing the action) comes first, then, active verbs point out what the subject is doing. We use the passive voice to express what is done to someone or something. In a passive voice, the subject comes near the end of the sentence or isn’t included at all. The order of the words is different in passive voice, too—whatever receives the action comes first.
We use active voice to emphasize that the subject is acting. We use passive voice to emphasize that an action is being done, but it might not be important that a subject is doing it. If you can’t tell whether a sentence is active of passive, figure out if the subject is acting (this is the active voice), or if the action is being done to the subject (this is the passive voice).
Here’s an example:
In the active voice, the subject does something.
Jill studies philosophy.
But, in the passive voice, something is done to the subject, so the form of the sentence is reversed.
Philosophy is studied by Jill.
The two sentences mean the same thing: Jill is studying philosophy. But, the order of the subject and the verb in the second changes the emphasis of the sentence. You might even think that the second sentence has the order all wrong. (It’s less clear and it even uses more words to say the same thing.)
Of course, even sentences written in the active voice can be poorly written! Just because a writer isn’t very clear doesn’t mean the writer is using the passive voice. So, how do we figure out whether the sentence is active or passive if it is not super clear? For starters, figure out what action is happening in the sentence. Then, figure out what’s in the first part of the sentence—is the person or thing that is acting at the front? (Then, the sentence is active.) In the passive voice, if a subject appears at all in the sentence, it will usually be at the end. For instance:
The cello was strung by a master.
Is there an action in this sentence? Yes, a cello is strung. Now, what’s at the front of the sentence—the subject performing the action, or the object that is being acted upon? Well, the cello is being acted upon by the master, so it’s the object of the action, and not the subject. The master is the one who performed the action, but is stuck at the end of the sentence. This sentence uses the passive voice. If it was in the active voice, the person doing the acting would be up front, like this:
The master strung the cello.
One final way to pick out the passive voice is to be on the lookout for any form of the “to be” verb (being, am, is are, was, were).
Active over Passive for Clarity
So, you know the difference between active and passive voice, but what gives? Why is it important for the SHSAT? You know you’ll be revising and will have to pick out correct choices for best writing that will use both the active and passive voice. Almost always, you will choose the answer that uses the active voice. Why? The passive voice doesn’t tell us directly what people do, and so it leaves the reader to sometimes have to guess what the sentence means.
The writers of the SHSAT know this! They know that the active voice is more direct, often clearer, and frequently conveys meaning with less confusion. So, they will provide correct responses for you that use the active voice. When they do, the correct answer choices will pick out who is doing an action.
Compare these two statements and see if you think the active voice indicates who is doing the action and is clearer:
(passive) The painting was viewed by everyone at MoMA.
(active) Everyone at MoMA viewed the painting.
The passive voice sentence is confusing, because it’s not clear if the painting needed to be at MoMA to be seen, or if everyone who was at MoMA actually saw the painting. But, we don’t have that problem with the active voice—there is only one meaning. Take another example:
(passive) Ethics training was needed in the Good Place, and changed how people acted.
(active) Residents in the Good Place needed ethics training, and it changed people’s behavior.
In the passive sentence, there really isn’t an action being performed, and it suggests that a place has to receive ethics training—something that is reserved for people. The second example is longer, but is clearer. The reader doesn’t wonder what action takes place, who performs it, and what results from the act. When you edit, you’ll focus on the active voice. (See “The Voice: How to Revise to Active Voice” for how to do this.)
There are times when writers use the passive voice. It’s not an error to use the passive voice, after all. But, be wary of using too many words, of being unclear, and of frustrating the reader. If the reader has to guess or wait to figure out who performed the act of the sentence, the sentence should be revised to be written better.
Take a look at some examples of passive sentences, and see if you can make them active:
Estimates for the newly-discovered Picasso run at $90 million.
Food storage during the zombie apocalypse could be found in the bunker.
Father Brown was written by Chesterton, set during the early 1900s.
What makes these sentences passive? The focus is on something done to the subject, rather than a subject performing an act—being active! To switch the focus on a subject acting, rather than being acted upon, think about how you could rewrite them. Here are some possible revisions:
The newly-discovered Picasso has an estimated value of $90 million.
The bunker stores food for the zombie apocalypse.
Chesterton wrote Father Brown and set it during the early 1900s.
Even though you know what the first set of sentences mean—especially if you think about it hard enough—you don’t have to scratch your head when you read the second set. The meaning is clear. Most writing can be improved by using the active voice. When you see the passive voice on the SHSAT, chances are good that the writing is unclear, or imprecise. (You might even be confused about what it is supposed to say.)
So—Passive is a No-Go?
There are a handful of cases when the correct answer choice will use the passive voice. This is especially true when the writer wants to place emphasis on the what is being done to a subject, rather than who is performing an act. In some of these instances, you will want to go with the passive voice:
- When we don’t know who performed an act, or who performed the act isn’t important.
Example 1: “Up to 90% of the soldiers in the Civil War were in need of weather-appropriate uniforms.” Science and history writing can frequently use the passive voice, and it can work well to communicate scientific and historical ideas.
Example 2: “The first attempts of da Vinci’s architectural designs were submitted as grant proposals to the Italian government.” The emphasis of this sentence is on what is happening to the architectural designs, not that da Vinci submitted them as grant proposals.
- When we want to emphasize the act, not the person.
Example: The samples had been stored in a cryogenics tank in hopes that they will be active later.
Here, we don’t know who performed the action, but what is important is that the samples are being acted upon (by being stored in a cryogenics tank). Just remember, the active voice should often be used if you do know who is performing the act.
- When the main topic is a person or thing who is being acted upon.
Example: A structure for vibranium has already been produced by Tony Stark.
In this example, we could make the statement active easily, “Tony Stark has already produced a structure for vibranium.” But, the sentence in the example focuses on the thing being acted upon—the structure of vibranium– first, and only second that Tony Stark produced it. The active voice makes sense, but it takes away from the emphasis the writer wants, so it should be left in the passive voice.
In what’s coming up, we’ll figure out how to change passive voice to active voice when we revise.