SAT Tip: Active Voice vs. Passive Voice

SAT Tip: Active Voice vs. Passive Voice
The ability to spot these clues will lead to the correct answer on an SAT writing question (Photograph by Jordan Siemens/Getty Images)
Photograph by Jordan Siemens/Getty Images

This tip on improving your SAT score was provided by Vivian Kerr at Veritas Prep.

What does it mean when we say sentences on the SAT should be “active”? A sentence is “active” when the subject of the sentence is doing the action of the verb. The SAT prefers active voice because sentences written actively are more concise, clear, and direct than passive sentences. While passive voice is not strictly grammatically wrong, when you come across a question on the SAT and two answer choices are grammatically correct but one is written using passive voice, choose the one that uses active voice. Here’s a simple example:

Active: Author George R.R. Martin wrote the Game of Thrones series, now a popular television show on HBO.

Passive: Now a popular television series on HBO, Game of Thrones was written by author George R. R. Martin.

The subject of the sentence is always the thing/person that does the action (not necessarily the first noun you come across). Here the subject is “George R.R. Martin” because he is doing the writing, and the verb is “wrote.” The object of a sentence is the thing/person receiving the action. What is being “written?” The “Game of Thrones series.” The order of the parts of speech in these sentences is:

Active: Subject → Verb → Object → Descriptive clause

Passive: Descriptive clause → Object → Verb → ”by” → Subject

In the second version, it’s weird that the person doing the writing should come at the end. Remember, for a sentence to be “active,” the doer comes first. Note that the word “by” is present in almost every passive voice construction. If you see the word “by,” you are likely dealing with the passive voice.

What about descriptive words and clauses? The order of these doesn’t matter, as long as it’s clear what they modify. Active voice is really concerned only with the order of the subject, verb, and object.

Tip: Watch out for “being.”

A sentence on the SAT containing the word “being” is not always incorrect, but “being” often appears in sentences written in the passive voice. If you see “being” as an option on an SAT Writing question (and trust me, you will), look for a more active construction that has no other grammatical errors. If you find one, it’s going to be preferable to the “being” option. Let’s check out a practice question.

Although the wedding dress was designed especially for her, that it still needed a few alterations did not surprise Mattie.

(A) that it still needed a few alterations did not surprise Mattie.

(B) no surprise resulted when Mattie learned that it still needed a few alterations.

(C) the few alterations that it still needed did not surprise Mattie.

(D) Mattie was not surprised that it still needed a few alterations.

(E) its still needing a few alterations did not surprise Mattie.

“Mattie” is the subject, “surprise” is the verb, and “it” is the object. The correct answer is (D) because it puts those items in the correct order without introducing a new error. The other options are awkwardly constructed and not in the active voice.

Remember, on test day you’re always looking for a grammar-error free answer choice that has clarity of meaning, and that typically means active voice.

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