Which is the better sentence? Laura feeds the fish. The fish are fed by Laura. Mmm … hungry!
Day 1: Active voice Laura feeds the fish. The subject acts on the direct object. So simple! The fish are fed by Laura. While technically the fish are the subject, Laura’s still doing the feeding. But she’s been exiled to the end of the sentence – as an object of the preposition. Did Laura get eaten by a shark? That’s a really bad question.
Actors and action In active voice, the subject and the actor are the same. Actor in this instance means someone who takes action and not a movie star. This jellyfish is a better actor than the entire Twilight cast. Also, it sparkles.
Practice Find the actor in these sentences: Mrs. Levy gets crabby when her students write bad sentences. In the middle of the night, Bradley awoke to the sound of a woman shouting his name outside his window. I can’t believe that ball crashed straight through Mr. Singh’s window. This book is a total waste of dead trees. That battered old junk-heap of a car sputtered and creaked all the way to the corner and then died.
Day 2: Passive voice In passive voice, the subject and the actor are totally different. The direct object becomes the subject. What should’ve been the subject becomes the object of the preposition or disappears entirely. Confused? Sounds pretty fishy.
Some examples Find the actor in these sentences: The minnow was eaten by an eel. The dolphin was chased by an orca straight around the bay until it was caught and eaten. There was no way those rowdy teenagers were going to get served dinner at that nice restaurant. I had my iPhone taken away after my parents saw my report card. ??
Why passive voice is wrong Every bad sentence kills an idea. Dead ideas float on their backs and look disgusting and people wonder why you don’t just flush it down the toilet already. R.I.P.
Passive voice is really wrong Seriously, passive voice can make people avert their eyes if the sentence moves too slowly. Remember the eye moves downward as it reads. Passive sentences can stop the idea’s forward movement, and that means the human eye also slows or stops. This goes against human instinct, so either readers must force themselves to reread – or their eyes just skip ahead. You’re doomed either way. I hope you get my point.
When passive voice is okay Newspapers will use passive voice in headlines and lead paragraphs (called “ledes”) when people have died. Ten people are believed dead in an early morning plane crash. Sally Butler was strangled by her own husband. In these sentences, an editor has made the conscious choice to put the humanity of the victims before the mechanics of what happened to them. Since no one here plans on dying anytime soon, please use active voice only.
Keep your fishies fed Keep your ideas alive and happy by keeping them active. Fish need food, and ideas need a voice – active voice!
Day 3: Spotting passive voice Look for the word “by”, as the actors often wind up as objects of the preposition: The swimmers were bitten by a shark. The cupcakes were eaten by the children. Passive voice often abuses the verb “to be”. The pizza wasn’t delivered until after it had gone cold. I had never been chased by orcas before.
Which is which? Say whether these sentences are active or passive voice: Drew was hit in the head by a fish. The rainbow was gone by the next day. The jellyfish used its tentacles to stun the sparkly vampire. Please keep your shoes by the laundry room.
Careful! Other teachers may tell you that the verb “to be” is a sign of passive voice. This is wrong! Some examples of “be-less” passive voice: Raj got arrested at the demonstration yesterday. You got your lunch eaten by someone else. Marietta had her car stolen out of her driveway last week. The problems with the grammar test went unnoticed by teachers for weeks.
More clues Ask yourself “who or what is doing the action?” If the actor is exiled to a prepositional phrase or is missing in action, your sentence is in passive voice. Hmm … how do you rewrite a dead fish?
Day 4: Tense and voice Passive voice can creep into your writing when you’re unaware of it. Because English has so many strange ways of conjugating verbs, you need to be careful. Look at every tense and every conjugation to purge passive voice. Some examples are on the next page.
Identify the tense: Passive Active Once a week, Tom cleans the fish tank. Right now, Sarah is baking the flounder. The shark ate a cat. The boat was sailing the bay when the storm hit. Nadia has visited the school before. You will finish your homework tonight. Once a week, the fish tank is cleaned by Tom. Right now, the flounder is being baked by Sarah. The cat was eaten by a shark. The bay was being sailed by the boat when the storm hit. The school has been visited before by Nadia. Your homework will be finished by you tonight.
Day 5: Quick fixes Here’s how you revive a dead fish: Start over from scratch. What’s doing the action? There’s your subject. Put your subject where it belongs – in front of an action verb or verb phrase. Do this every time you spot passive voice in your writing! I only look passive. I’m really quite active on the cellular level.
Unknown actors How do you fix a sentence if you don’t know the actor? My Kindle was confiscated after I snuck it into class. The fish was served undercooked. You must first determine the actor before rewriting the sentence. Office 8 confiscated my Kindle after I snuck it into class. The waiter served the fish undercooked. Boycott sushi.
Change these to active voice: Howie’s car was towed by the police for being double- parked. Mistakes were made by teachers when they put the grammar test together. The fire was put out before the news media got there. An interesting book about sentence transformations was written by a grammarian. The address was given by the president before Congress.
Punishments and rewards From now on, passive voice will count as a convention error in your writing. Remember, you’re only allowed three convention errors in any piece before I begin deducting points. On the other hand, choosing great action verbs will assure you higher points for word choice. It will also increase your sentence fluency.
Day 6: More fish You can admire this lovely sea scene while you take your quiz.