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Active vs. Passive Voice on the GMAT

No one is going to achieve wild success in the business world simply by sitting around and letting events unfold.  Success in the business world involves taking action.  Of course, which action, and what is the best time to act, are debatable points that depend on the situation, but the general idea is universally true: an active approach is going to generate more success than will a passive approach.

Similarly, direct powerful active writing is going to be much more effective in business, and generate many more sales, than will weak tentative passive writing.  “Rooms painted with our paint will be seen as sparkling.”  Hmm.  Yawn.  “Our paint will make rooms sparkle.”  BAM! Much more persuasive.


Verb Voice

This reflects a quality of verbs called “voice”.  Verbs have many qualifiers — tense & number & mood — and one of this is “voice.”  There are two voices: the active voice and the passive voice.  This distinction only applies to verbs that take a direct object (called “transitive verbs”): buy, sell, love, sense, know, imagine, give, receive, etc.  Description verbs (be, seem, happen) and action verbs that don’t take direct objects (walk, run, fly, talk, wait, sleep) have only an active voice, no passive voice.

The general template for active voice is [subject][verb][object].  For example,

1) Every day, the CEO gives the delivery boy a generous tip. (present)

2)  Tomorrow, the broker will buy 100 shares of KO. (future)

3) The couple has found what they considered their dream house.  (past)

Now, let’s consider those same three sentences in the passive voice.  The general template for the passive voice is [subject = receiver of the action][passive verb]”by”[doer of the action].  For example,

1) Every day, a generous tip is given to the delivery boy by the CEO.

2) Tomorrow, 100 shares of KO will be bought by the broker.

3) What the couple considers a dream house has been found by them.

YUCK!  Wordy, indirect, awkward!  This leads directly to our first rule.


Rule #1: Be Suspicious of the Passive Voice

That latter set of sentences clearly indicates what is problematic about the passive voice.  When the verb is in the passive voice, the sentence tends to be flaccidly wordy, aimlessly indirect, and pathetically weak.  When you are describing an active event in the real world, that naturally calls for the active voice, and using the passive voice will sound awkward and unnatural.

In any GMAT SC question in which answers choices are split between active and passive voice for the same verb, the active voice will be correct essentially all the time.  When you see such a split, you will notice the passive voice choices sound wordy, indirect, and awkward —- everything the SC rejects.  Similarly, in your own writing on the AWA, avoid the passive voice: unless you write like Shakespeare, you are not going to be able to use the passive voice in a way that enhances the active feel of the essay as a whole.  Better simply to avoid it.

Notice, I am not saying the passive voice is always wrong.  After all, there are no dogmatic rules in grammar.  That leads to the second rule


Rule #2: When the Passive Voice is Acceptable

The active voice puts the spotlight on who or what performs the action.  The passive voice puts the spotlight on who or what receives the action, and it de-emphasizes the one who performs the action.  Ordinarily, this results in an awkward feel.  BUT, there are times the passive voice is exactly what we want.

First of all, there are times that the agent, the performer of the action, is simply omitted because it is unknown or assumed.

4) Ambition should be made of sterner stuff.

5) Full fathom five thy father lies,
Of his bones are coral made.

In other cases, because of context, we want to emphasize the impact of the action and the person or thing that received the action, and we want to de-emphasize the one who performed the action.

6) Thus was I, sleeping, by a brother’s hand
Of life, of crown, of queen, at once dispatch’d:

7) … that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights …

In #6, the speaker (the ghost of Hamlet’s father) is emphasizing his own experience, and wants to take the spotlight away from the brother who murdered him.  In #7, the entire focus of the Declaration is a government based on humans and the rights of humans, and Jefferson wanted to de-emphasize the Creator precisely because that was the justification of monarchs such as the one from whom Jefferson and his colleagues were rebelling.  In both, deeply contextual priorities are reflected brilliantly in the choice of passive voice.

Following these patterns, the GMAT SC sometimes has a correct answer that involves a passive voice.  For example, in the OG13, see SC #45 & #46.  Here’s another practice question involving the passive voice:


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