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​The Difference Between The Active And The Passive Voice

A photograph of two female scientists working on an experiment, Used as the cover image for Article “The Difference Between The Active And The Passive Voice Cover Image”

​Summary: The Difference Between The Active And The Passive Voice

​Adept English (Subject) struggles to avoid boring (Verbs) grammar (Object). Sometimes when you hear an English language student making a mistake in a conversation, you can only help correct the error if you explain the grammar rules that are being broken. Unfortunately (for you and for us!) this means we need to deep dive into an English grammar lesson.

If you’re a scientist who talks about experiments in English, you will need to know all about the passive voice. Maybe you manage teams of people and need to tell them off without naming names, again you will need to learn how to use the passive voice. This Mondays English grammar podcast will help explain the difference between the active voice and the passive voice.

Knowing the key difference between active voice and passive voice it really about understanding Subject, Verb, Object and we make this as easy to understand as is possible. We also give you lots of examples and really break the grammar into simple ideas you can learn quickly and remember.

​Audio Transcript: The Difference Between The Active And The Passive Voice

​Hi there and welcome to this latest podcast from Adept English. This is our Monday podcast and therefore it’s a bit longer than our Thursday podcast. It’s great that so many more of you are listening to our podcasts – the numbers go up every month. So don’t forget to tell people about us! You probably know other people who’re learning English too, who might also find Adept English useful. Share us around – we’re very grateful if you do that. The more people that listen, the more encouraged we will be to keep doing podcasts for you!

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​Now it’s the start of the year and I always think that January and February are months where it’s good to get your head down and do some work. So let’s go with that and tackle some grammar today. How about we talk about the difference between the active and the passive voice? If you’re doing an English language course, this is just the type of thing which you are taught in the classroom. But people can sometimes struggle with grammar, especially with things like this. So let’s tackle it in our usual way, giving lots of examples and hopefully making it something that you find easy to understand, easy to listen to. And of course, repeat your listening to help your English fluency.

​Active and Passive Voice – what do the words mean?

So the difference between the active and the passive voice? What does that mean? Well, those are terms to describe English grammar and I think that part of the confusion, certainly for English speakers is in the use of the word ‘voice’ here, V-O-I-C-E. Voice usually means a sound, in fact the sound that you make when you speak. You’re listening to my voice right now. But active voice and passive voice really just means two different ways, two different modes of using a verb. So active voice and passive voice just refer to two different ways of using verbs.

Before we tackle the difference between the active and the passive voice, let’s look at the words ‘active’ and ‘passive’. If you were describing a person as ‘active’, it would mean that they’re full of action and energy, that they’re always doing something, always busy. Whereas if you said that someone was ‘passive’, it would mean that they’re not active, they tend to wait around for other people to do things. They don’t take the lead, they don’t start things very much.  So that’s reflected in the meaning of the terms active and passive voice.

​So let’s take ‘the active voice’ first or using verbs with the active voice. Well, most sentences are in the active voice. If you take the really simple sentence ‘I drove the car’. So ‘drove’ is just the past tense of the verb ‘to drive’. Today ‘I drive’, yesterday, ‘I drove’. So ‘I drove the car’ is active voice because the subject of the sentence – ‘I’ – is doing the driving. ‘I’ is the subject of the sentence, the person doing the action. ‘Drove’ is the verb and the car is the object of the sentence. The object is the thing that something is being done to. The car is on the receiving end of the action. So ‘I drove the car’ is active voice, subject, verb, object. ‘I’ am doing the action. The difference between the active and the passive voice is that in the active voice, the person or thing ‘doing the action is the subject of the sentence and the verb matches this, whereas in the passive voice, the person or thing the action that is being done to, is made the subject of the sentence and the verb matches this instead.

​Some examples of active and passive voice

So if I said ‘the car was driven by me’ – that’s passive voice. You’ll notice now the car is the subject of the sentence. So if you can see if we made it plural, it would be ‘the cars were driven by me’. So the verb changes to match its subject ‘car’ or ‘cars’. So ‘the car was driven by me’ – ‘car’ is the subject, the verb is ‘was driven’, but in reality, the action, the driving is being done to the car. The car is not driving itself – it’s passive, if you like.

A photograph of a mandrawing on a whiteboard with a team of people looking at him work. Used as an article image for the article “The Difference Between The Active And The Passive Voice Article Image”

So ‘by me’ tells you who is really doing it. It’s still me driving – we aren’t yet at ‘driverless cars’. Does that make sense? It’s called the passive voice, because although the car is the subject of the sentence, the car’s actually ‘passive’, not the thing doing the action.

​Let’s have some more examples to make it clearer

So this is active voice    My auntie is making a cake right now.
And passive voice        A cake is being made by my auntie right now.
Active voice again        Last Wednesday, my dog ate my shoes.
And passive voice         Last Wednesday, my shoes were eaten by my dog.
Active voice again         Sarah will choose the music for the wedding.
Passive voice         The music for the wedding will be chosen by Sarah.

So hopefully, those examples will help you see the difference between the active and the passive voice. You can see also that whatever tense, whether it’s present or past or future you use in the active voice, if you turn the sentence round into passive voice, the tense must reflect it too.

​Passive voice only possible with verbs which can have an object in the active voice

You’ll notice also that the passive voice can only exist where the verb has an object, or can have an object. Where the subject is doing something to an object, so here the cake, the shoes or the music are objects in the active voice and become the subject in the passive voice. But there are lots of verbs in English which can’t be used in the passive voice, because they can’t be used with an object. So some examples of this would be:-

‘I laughed a lot at the comedy’ – that’s active voice. But you couldn’t say ‘someone or something was laughed’ – that wouldn’t make any sense.

You can say ‘I arrived’, but you can’t say ‘someone or something was arrived’.
You can say ‘the horse galloped’ but not ‘the horse was galloped’. So the passive voice can only happen with verbs that can take an object in the active voice.

Uses of the passive voice

So what do we use passive voice for? It’s important to understand not just the difference between the active and the passive voice, but when and where do we choose to use the passive voice instead? You might think surely it’s just easier to use the active voice most of the time? And you’d be right – it makes much more simple and direct and easily understood sentences.

But, there are specific times when passive voice would be used.

1. If the person doing the action is unknown….we don’t know who did it. So examples…
‘A valuable painting was stolen from the museum’. (But currently we have no idea who stole it) or
‘A large donation was made to the charity’. (But we don’t know who by).
You can also say of course ‘Someone stole a valuable painting’ or ‘Someone made a large donation’. That’s possible too.

2. Sometimes we use passive voice because the person doing the action isn’t the important bit. Again [an] example
‘300,000 new homes need to be built in England’. (But we don’t yet know which building company will do it).

3. Sometimes we want to be vague, we don’t want to be specific. So a teacher may come into the classroom and be telling the children off, reprimanding them, without needing to say who has done the bad deed. So the teacher might say
‘Rubbish is being left all over the floor’. ‘A mess is being left in the library’, ‘Some pencils have been broken’ – the teacher doesn’t want to say who she thinks is doing it.
So we use this a lot. There’s been something bad that’s been done and we say it in the passive voice because we don’t want to ‘point fingers’, we don’t want to accuse anybody. We might just say ‘Mistakes were made’  or ‘Rules were broken’- we’re not getting into the detail of who made the mistakes or who broke the rules!

4. Sometimes the passive voice is used because you want to emphasise or you want to put emphasis on a different part of the sentence. ‘Gold was discovered in the mountains’ or ‘water was discovered on Mars’. Who made the discovery is not so important.

5. Finally, it’s usual if you’re writing scientifically to use passive voice. If something is a science experiment or a test, you want to remove the scientist, it’s got to be impartial. Science aims to be objective, so scientific literature is usually written in the passive voice. So examples might be:-
‘250ml of hydrochloric acid was diluted with 500ml water’. Or
‘25 patients were given the medicine and 24 patients were given a placebo’. It doesn’t matter who gave out the pills to the patients. We don’t need to know their name. The focus is on the experiment.


So I hope all that helps you understand the difference between the active and the passive voice, and that you’re clearer about where to use them – or where you are more likely to hear the passive voice being used  and why that’s happening.

Anyway, enough for now. Have a lovely day. Speak to you again soon. Goodbye.

PS: Subject, Verb, Object Brings Back Memories Of Sitting In A Classroom For Me

​Hopefully, you found this week’s lesson just interesting enough to keep you interested in learning about the difference between the active and the passive voice. I guess if you’re a scientist you will need to learn the difference whenever you present your experiments so there is a real motive to understand the differences.

I suspect we all need to complain about somebodies actions without naming them. Maybe at work you need to tell the sales team off for not hitting a target or a technical team for not hitting the deadline. Rather than blame someone specifically you can use passive voice to avoid this. “Sales targets were missed this month team!”. ”A delivery date was missed again it’s just not good enough!”

As always, if you don‘t like this article or you already know about wonder and wander there are many more articles on common English phrases to listen to here.

You can always find more interesting learn English articles .​


Hilary is an Adept English Editor and a founding member of the company.

This content was originally published here.

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