Dave explains how active and passive voice can be told apart.


(Dave is sitting at his kitchen table, reading a newspaper. The front page story is about Mayor Buddy's re-election and an ensuing scandal. Mayor Buddy looks like Bucky, but without the tattoos and piercings)

Dave: Sheesh, politicians these days!

(Mayor Buddy runs into the kitchen from outside. He lowers the blinds on the window, peeps through them, then removes his top hat)

Mayor Buddy: Whew! That was a close one.

Dave: I see you've been busy.

Mayor Buddy: Wow, many of these newspaper articles use active voice a lot more often than others. I wonder why is that.

Dave: Well, maybe I should explain.

Caption: Active and Passive Voice

Narrator: Today, Dave is going to explain how you should use active and passive voice.

Dave: Voice has to do with how we construct sentences. Specifically, how we string together the subject, verb, and object.

(An animation shows the words "subject," "verb," and "object" arranged in a line and tied together with string)

Dave: Swapping the order of these elements can turn a sentence from the active voice to the passive voice.

(The words change order so that it now reads "object, verb, subject.")

Dave: Usually, the subject is the doer of the verb. It's the person, place, or thing that performs an action. The object receives the action of the verb. Sentences where the subject carries out an activity are in the active voice.

An animation shows the sentence "Dave reads the newspaper." The word "Dave" is labeled as the subject. The word "reads" is labeled as the verb. The word "newspaper" is labeled as the object)

Mayor Buddy: So, uh, why is it called "active voice"?

Dave: Well, because the subject is literally active. It's doing something, like reading or...

(Dave turns to another page of his newspaper and stops speaking. He stares at a photo of Mayor Buddy emptying the contents of a trashcan into a paper shredder. A caption beneath the photo reads: "Buddy shreds official documents.")

Dave: Shredding?

(Dave looks at Mayor Buddy. Mayor Buddy shrugs and looks away. Dave looks at another photo in the newspaper. This one shows Mayor Buddy wearing headphones and listening to a phone call. A caption beneath the photo reads: "Mayor Buddy spies on an opponent's phone call.")

Dave: Spying?

(Dave sees another photo in the newspaper. This one shows Mayor Buddy handing money to a man in a voting booth. The caption reads: "Mayor Buddy buys a vote.")

Dave: Buying votes?

(Dave looks at Mayor Buddy, who is cowering behind the kitchen table)

Dave: You're in a lot of trouble, bucko. Anyway, in the passive voice, we swap the object with the subject. So the action of the verb is performed on the subject. The newspaper is read by Dave.

(An animation shows the sentence "Dave reads the newspaper" changed to "The newspaper is read by Dave." The word "newspaper" is now labeled as a subject. The word "read" is labeled as a verb. The word "Dave" is labeled as an object)

Mayor Buddy: That sounds pretty clumsy.

Dave: Yeah. It does sound pretty clumsy, and it's wordier than the active voice. We have to shift the verb to the past tense, link it with the subject with a form of "to be," in this case, "is," and link it to the object with a preposition like "by."

(An animation shows the present-tense verb "reads" becoming the past-tense verb "read." A chain links the words "newspaper" and "is" to "read," forming the phrase "newspaper is read." Then a chain links that phrase to the words "by" and "Dave.")

Dave: You can change the voice of almost any sentence. "Mayor Buddy buys a vote" is active.

(An animation shows the sentence "Mayor Buddy buys a vote." The words "Mayor Buddy" are labeled as a subject. The word "buys" is labeled as a verb. The word "vote" is labeled as an object)

Dave: We can switch it to the passive: "A vote is bought by Mayor Buddy."

(The animation changes the sentence to passive voice, as Dave describes. The word "vote" is now the subject. The word "bought" is the verb. The words "Mayor Buddy" are the object)

Dave: In most cases, active voice will sound cleaner. That's why teachers recommend sticking with it.

(Dave looks at the picture of Mayor Buddy buying the vote. The caption changes from "A vote is bought by Mayor Buddy" to "Mayor Buddy buys a vote.")

Mayor Buddy: So, passive voice is more correct than active voice?

Dave: Sort of. Passive voice is grammatically correct, but the active voice is usually stronger and more dynamic.

(Dave opens a laptop computer. On its screen, an attorney is speaking at a podium. Below the image, a news crawl quotes the attorney as he speaks)

Dave: Just look at what the district attorney is saying. "I will not tolerate corruption in any form." Not, "Corruption in any form will not be tolerated by me." Ooh, and look at that.

(Dave points at the laptop screen and continues reading)

Dave: "Mayor Buddy will pay for what he's done."

Mayor Buddy: Uh-oh...

Dave: Passive construction shifts attention away from the doer. A speaker or writer can use it to obscure who performed the verb. Like this guy.

(Mayor Buddy now appears on the laptop screen. He is trying to slip away from a reporter who is questioning him. Text on the news crawl quotes Mayor Buddy as stating: "Mistakes were made.")

Dave: "Mistakes were made" is passive, and it's unclear. We can't even tell who made the mistakes. What a weasel.

Mayor Buddy: I am not a weasel.

(Mayor Buddy reaches over and closes Dave's laptop)

Dave: Passive voice is fine when mentioning the doer isn't possible or necessary. Like when he's unknown.

(A newspaper headline flashes: "Fifty thousand dollars stolen from city accounts.")

Dave: Or totally obvious.

(Dave gives Mayor Buddy a dirty look. Outside the house, a car alarm beeps. Mayor Buddy is operating the car's remote, unlocking the vehicle from the kitchen)

Mayor Buddy: If they're gonna track me, I'm getting out of here.

Dave: Sticking with the active voice for too long can feel overly forceful. I mean, just listen to this DA.

(Dave reopens his laptop and reads from the screen)

Dave: "The mayor is guilty. I will prosecute him fully. Authorities know where he is."

Mayor Buddy: Yikes!

As Dave reads, Mayor Buddy runs around the house, grabbing and packing his belongings)

Dave: Man, that's getting repetitive, isn't it? Using the passive voice can mix things up a bit. Ah, here we go.

(Dave returns to reading aloud)

Dave: "Mayor Buddy will be indicted by tomorrow morning."

Mayor Buddy: Uh-oh. I'm outta here!

(Mayor Buddy runs from the house, gets into the car outside, and speeds off)

Dave: Huh.

(Bucky enters the room)

Bucky: Hey, Dave. What was all that racket?

Dave: I see you took off that ridiculous disguise.

Bucky (confused): What disguise?

Dave: You know, the tuxedo and top hat.

Bucky: I don't wear a tuxedo and a top hat. Only my cousin Buddy does.

Dave: Right. Your "cousin" Buddy.

Bucky: You don't believe me, do you?

Dave: I'm sure the DA will buy that one.

(Bucky walks away in a huff)

Bucky: Hmph! That guy never believes what I say.