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How to Change Passive Voice to Active Voice


Passive-voice verbs put the emphasis on the recipient of the action, not the doer of the action. This kind of deflection can sometimes be useful, but strong sentences require active verb constructions, advises the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Writing Center. Passive-voice sentences are also wordier than more concise active-voice versions. Unless you have a specific reason for using passive voice, convert such verb constructions into active ones by putting the sentence’s focus on the source of the action.

Putting the Real Subject First

In a passive-voice sentence, the first element is usually the noun to which something has happened: “My coffee was spilled by the cat.” The real subject of the sentence, the cat, is at the end of the sentence, because the cat is the agent, explains the Purdue University Online Writing Lab. The telltale preposition phrase, “by the cat,” signals the passive voice. To convert it, flip the sentence around, removing the preposition “by” and simplifying the verb to “spilled.” The active-voice version starts with the agent: “The cat spilled my coffee.” In some cases, the passive voice obscures the agent -- the doer of the action -- by omitting the prepositional phrase; the Purdue University Online Writing Lab cites this example: “Mistakes were made.” Who made the mistakes? In your writing, do not conceal the subject: “We made mistakes,” might be correct if "we" is the subject; alternatively, say, “The trustees made mistakes,” if the trustees are the ones who made the mistakes.

About the Author

Jennifer Spirko has been writing professionally for more than 20 years, starting at "The Knoxville Journal." She has written for "MetroPulse," "Maryville-Alcoa Daily Times" and "Some" monthly. She has taught writing at North Carolina State University and the University of Tennessee. Spirko holds a Master of Arts from the Shakespeare Institute, Stratford-on-Avon, England.

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