Active Verbs

Active verbs have two primary advantages over passive verbs. First, passive sentences usually include a few extra words. Second, passive sentences make it more difficult, sometimes even impossible, to know exactly who did what.

So active sentences tend to be more concise and easier to understand than passive sentences.

Active vs Passive Sentences

In an active sentence, the subject of the sentence performs the action of the verb:

The artist painted the portrait.

Jim kicks John.

So in an active sentence, the subject (artist, Jim) is also the main actor (artist, Jim).

In a passive sentence, the the subject of the sentence performs no action:

The portrait was painted by the artist.

John is being kicked by Jim.

So in a passive sentence, the subject (portrait, John) is not the main actor (artist, Jim).

Some passive sentences remove the main actor entirely:

The portrait was painted.

John is being kicked.

In such sentences the subject (portrait, John) does nothing, and the main actor (artist, Jim) vanishes altogether.

The ability of passive voice to hide the person responsible for an action makes it useful for cowards, scoundrels, and politicians, who prefer to say Mistakes were made instead of saying I made a mistake.

How to Identify Passive Verbs

A passive verb consists of

  1. a form of the verb to be (or to get)
  2. a past participle (usually a verb ending in –ed)

Forms of the verb to be:

is am are
was were
be been being

Forms of the verb to get:

get got gotten gets getting

Examples of passive sentences:

Shakespeare is discussed daily in this course.

Conspiracy theories are only believed by fools.

My resignation letter was sent on Friday.

The presents were promptly delivered by UPS.

We have not been served our lunch order yet.

Maria is being flattered by Bjorn.

A traffic ticket will be issued by the police officer.

When I am given a hard time, I feel sad.

A bicycle may be stollen if it’s not properly locked up.

Making Passive Sentences Active

To make a passive sentence active, make the main actor the subject of the sentence.

Jim was kicked by John.
[PASSIVE / 5 words]

John kicked Jim.
[ACTIVE / 3 words ]

Important files should always be backed up.
[PASSIVE / 7 words]

Always back up important files.
[ACTIVE / 5 words]

Here are the previous example passive sentences made active:

We discuss Shakespeare daily in this course.

Only fools believe conspiracy theories.

I sent my resignation letter on Friday.

UPS delivered the presents promptly.

The waitress has not served us our lunch order yet.

Bjorn is flattering Maria.

The police officer will issue a traffic ticket.

When someone gives me a hard time, I feel sad.

If you don’t lock your bicycle up properly, someone might steal it.

When the actor does not appear in a passive sentence, you must supply an actor to make the sentence active.

When to Use Passive Verbs

Use the passive voice if it makes a sentence both shorter and clearer.

For example:

I was born in a cross-fire hurricane.
[PASSIVE / 7 words]

is shorter and clearer than:

My mother gave birth to me in a cross-fire hurricane.
[ACTIVE / 10 words]

Page Last Updated: 8 January 2012