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Lucas Fink

The Passive Voice in SAT Writing

One of the errors that SAT writing multiple choice questions check for can be a little controversial because they’re not always exactly wrong. It’s actually a bit subjective. Here are a couple sentences with pretty much the exact same meaning. Are either of them incorrect?

1. My wig was stolen!

2. Somebody stole my wig!

The first sentence is what we’d call passive, meaning the verb takes the form of be + stolen, and the object of the action (the wig) is the grammatical subject of the sentence. The second sentence, in contrast, is active: we use the actor, somebody, as the subject, and the verb is in its normal form.

You’d be right to say that they’re both fine as they are. Since we don’t know who stole the wig, and they’re not the focus of the sentence anyway, it’s perfectly comfortable to use a passive in this case. But on your SAT, you should always think twice about it.


The SAT hates the passive voice

If there’s any way to make a passive verb into an active one without making the sentence much, much longer, the SAT will want you to use the active voice. Sometimes it’s clear why. If you said, “The peaches in the fridge were eaten by me,” you’d sound really weird. The SAT would want the active voice, just as it should.

But sometimes it’s really not all that clear which version is preferable. The passive is something that we use pretty often, really, and in some forms of writing it’s incredibly common. In scientific writing, for example, passives are used to create distance between the researchers and their actions in order to sound more factual and unbiased. Hey—I even used a passive verb in that last sentence!

But don’t bother trying to explain that to your SAT. It won’t listen, I promise. And you may get an improving sentences question that looks something like this:

By boiling tap water for at least 15 minutes, the chlorine can be evaporated in order to make the water habitable for fish.

  1. the chlorine can be evaporated
  2. by evaporating the chlorine
  3. they will evaporate the chlorine
  4. you can evaporate the chlorine
  5. the chlorine can have been evaporated

And that’s hardly an obvious issue. But the SAT cares, and the best form of that underlined section would be (D), which makes it active and keeps the meaning intact.

Passive forms should set off alarms in your head every time. Check if you can make it active relatively easily. If you can, you’ve almost definitely found the problem.


About Lucas Fink

Lucas is the teacher behind Magoosh TOEFL. He’s been teaching TOEFL preparation and more general English since 2009, and the SAT since 2008. Between his time at Bard College and teaching abroad, he has studied Japanese, Czech, and Korean. None of them come in handy, nowadays.

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