How to Handle Passive and Active Voices in GMAT Sentence Corrections

GMAT Active Voice vs Passive VoiceThese two sentences have an important difference.  Can you spot it?

1) She spoke persuasively, arguing for major legislative changes.

2) Major legislative changes were argued for in her persuasive speech.

The first sentence is written in the active voice, and the second is written in the passive voice.

In the first sentence above, the subject is “she,” and the verb is “spoke.” In the second sentence, the subject is “major legislative changes” and the verb is “were argued for.”

Writing in the active voice means that the subject of the sentence is performing the action; writing in the passive voice means that the subject of the sentence is the object of an action. It’s tricky sometimes to distinguish between passive and active voices, but it’s worth practicing, because sometimes on GMAT Sentence Corrections, the difference between two grammatically sound answers is passive and active voice.  Many people in this situation end up guessing because they can’t think of any good reason to reject either of the choices. By learning how to use passive and active voices, you can avoid that frustration.

Many GMAT students complain that the use of passive and active voices on the GMAT is random.  Sometimes, the correct answer to a Sentence Correction will be in the passive voice, but other times, a choice will be eliminated for being in the passive voice. How can you tell when it matters and when it doesn’t? In general, the GMAT favors the active voice. However, sentences written in the passive voice can still be correct if every other choice has a grammatical flaw. The first time you look through the answer choices on a question, don’t eliminate an option just because it’s passive. If you’ve narrowed the answers down to two grammatically correct options, though, and the ONLY difference is that one is passive and the other is active, then you can eliminate the passive choice.

The use of the passive voice isn’t really considered an error in GMAT Sentence Corrections; it’s more of a style issue. The GMAT favors concise writing: statements should be as succinct as possible. The use of the passive voice tends to clutter sentences up, making them lengthier and more complicated than necessary. But if every other choice has definite error—a misplaced modifier, subject-verb disagreement, or a pronoun without a clear antecedent, for instance—a choice using the passive voice can be correct. Let’s look at an example:

The company’s owner said that the new regulations should be enacted at every franchise location before the end of the quarter.

A. the new regulations should be enacted at every franchise location before the end of the quarter.
B. the new regulations being the subject of enactment at every franchise location before the end of the quarter.
C. the new regulations enacted at every franchise locations before the end of the quarter.
D. the franchise locations enacting the new regulations before the end of the quarter.
E. the company’s franchises should have enacted to the new regulations before the end of the quarter.

In this Sentence Correction, the sentence as written displays the passive voice, although it is otherwise correct. Each of the other choices has a distinct error: choice B uses “being,” which is virtually never correct on the GMAT; in choice C, “every” doesn’t agree with the plural “locations” and the omission of “should be” makes the sentence into a fragment; choice D’s use of the gerund creates a sentence fragment as well; choice E uses an incorrect idiom (“enacted to”). Therefore, the passive construction is correct.

However, an active construction would be the preferred style, and that would look like this:

The company’s owner said that every franchise location should enact the new regulations before the end of the quarter.

Passive voice is a style issue on the GMAT, and shouldn’t be your first concern when evaluating answer choices. When you’re going through the answers and eliminating them, look first at errors like subject-verb agreement and parallelism. However, when two choices are both error-free, the use of passive voice can make the difference.  This should help you determine whether the passive voice matters as you are choosing an answer.

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