Active or Passive Voice?

Contributor: Dru Cartier. Lesson ID: 13692

Brush up on your active or passive voice skills and learn how they apply to scholarships in this quick refresher lesson.


Preparing for College, Writing

English / Language Arts
learning style
personality style
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Skill Sharpener

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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  • Has anyone ever told you to get active?
  • Did you ever just respond with a shrug?

Passive behavior like that may fly for a lot of things; however, when it comes to college applications and scholarship essays, you want your voice active.

wise piggy bank

  • Are you unsure what the difference is?

Try dragging the sentences below into their appropriate categories.

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As you look ahead in life, remember to beef up your writing with an active voice.

passive vs active

Let's get started by defining what an active voice and passive voice sound like and where they should be found.

  • What is an active voice?

A sentence in this order will mostly likely be active:

subject + verb + object

It will sound stronger. It will be clearer and more straightforward than its weak counterpart (passive voice).

For example:

Zombies eat brains.

The subject (zombies) performs the action described by the verb (eat) that relates to the object (brains).

  • What is a passive voice?

Let's compare our active zombie scenario with its passive version:

Brains are eaten by zombies.

The passive sentence consists of the object (brains) + a form of to be + the past participle eaten (are eaten) + preposition (by) + the subject (zombies).

Making the sentence passive changed the structure and necessitated the preposition by. You will notice this is a fairly common thing to see -- not zombies eating brains, but the inclusion of by in passive sentences.

The formula for the active voice is:

(subject) + (verb performed by the subject) + (optional object)

The kids vaporized the zombies.

  • The kids did the vaporizing. (verb performed by the subject)

The formula for the passive voice is:

(subject) + (some form of the verb to be) + (past participle of a transitive verb) + (optional prepositional phrase)

The zombies were vaporized by the kids.

  • The zombies are acted upon by the kids. (the subject has something done to it by the verb)

Give it a try.

mutated hamster

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Now, let's try the passive form.

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Now, you might be thinking, "Zombies are great and all, but what does any of this have to do with college?"

Good question.

When applying for college scholarships, you are likely to get questions that require active voice responses.

Here are some example questions you might see:

  • What activities are you involved in?

  • What is a personal achievement you are proud of?

  • Why do you deserve this scholarship?

Let's take a look at the first question. Here are three example answers in the passive and active voices.

  • Which do you think should be on an essay for a scholarship committee?

Example 1

Passive: Soccer was played by me junior and senior year.

Active: Junior year, I led my soccer team to seven victories. Senior year, I doubled that.

Example 2

Passive: Biff was played by me in Death of a Salesman junior year.

Active: I won the role of Biff in the junior theater production of Death of a Salesman.

Example 3

Passive: Soup is served by me at a homeless shelter where I volunteer each week.

Active: Each Thursday, I volunteer at St. Mary's homeless shelter, where I serve soup and deliver clothes.

You'll notice the active examples are also more detailed. Thorough answers are vital when it comes to showing off your skills, experiences, and background.

If you want to sell the scholarship committee on you as a person, use that active voice.

shadow meeting

Pop quiz time!

  • Are the following sentences active or passive?

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  • Is there ever a time to use a passive voice?

There are a few specific instances you would use your passive voice.

  1. When you refer to a general truth, you would use a passive voice.

For example: Rules are meant to be broken. Cheaters never prosper. What goes around comes around.

These statements are used by anyone and can be directed at anyone.

  1. When the "actor" is unknown, you would use a passive voice.

For example: The petroglyphs in New Mexico date back to the stone age.

We do not know who exactly made them, therefore we can't say anything specific.

  1. When you want to add emphasis to something acted on.

For example: Penicillin was first discovered in 1928 by Alexander Fleming at St. Mary's Hospital in London, England.

In this case, penicillin was acted upon when it "was discovered" by Fleming.

keep going

The time has come for you to practice using these voice types in action. Head over to the Got It? section for some practice.

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