Lighting it up Passively: A Look at Passive and Active Voice


Let’s start this topic off with this question: What is the difference between the following two expressions:

The town lit up with LED lights

The town was lit up with LED lights

One expression is active and the other is passive. It is more of the question of who does what.

Active and passive voice in English may be parallel with that of the German language. After all, when using active, the sentence construction is the same: A person or an object does something to the direct object, or putting it in linguistic terms: subject, verb and object, like in these two examples:

Corrina invited Theodore to her birthday party. (EN)

Corrina lud Theodor zu ihren Geburtstagsparty ein. (D)

In either case, we have the subject (Corrina), the verb (invite/einladen) and the (direct) object (Theodore).

In passive voice, we have the copula for English (to be) as well as for German (werden) with the verb constructed in past participle (or in German: Perfekt):

Theodore was invited to the birthday party by Corrina. (EN)

Theodor wurde zum Corrinas Geburtstagsparty eingeladen. (D)

When looking at the two sentences, we have the same construction, especially with regards to the subject (Theodore) and the object represented by who is doing what to the subject (Corrina).

Yet when we have only one actor in passive voice, one can use an open subject when constructing it into active voice, something that is common in German as well, like for example:

Theodore was invited to a birthday party   (D: Theodor wurde zum Geburtstagsparty eingeladen)

Someone invited Theodore to a birthday party  (D: Jemand hat Theodor zum Geburtstagsparty eingeladen).

Here, in active voice, we can use someone, but somebody is possible for singular voice, many, a lot of people or even people for plural voice.

This leads to the question of whether there is a trick to determining what is the subject and what is the object in a sentence when converting it from active into passive. The answer that question is yes. One needs to look at the sentence carefully and find two agents (or actors) in the sentence- one should be the subject, and the other should be direct object. These two agents serve as reciprocity in a way that they can be interchangeably used when writing the sentences in active and passive voices.

When looking at the first example sentence, we have the two agents, Corrina and Theodore, which can be used interchangibly. The verb functions dependent on its use as active or passive voice (invite or to be  invited), while the rest of the information is additional and play no role in the reciprocity process. Even when adding the modal verbs, the rule still remains the same, except when in passive, the verb structure always starts with a modal verb, plus to be and finally past participal.  An example sentence using the modal verbs can be seen below:

The city could be made brighter with LED street lamps.  (passive)

LED street lamps could make the city brighter. (active)

colo light post cfp

The next exercises deals with the history of lighting, especially street lighting with the purpose of helping you get acquainted with passive and active voices. The following exercises can be done both in English as well as in German (if teachers are willig to translate from EN to D.)

PART I. Construct the following sentences in active form, using the words given. Please be aware of the tenses, plus one may need to add some missing elements, like prepositions, relative pronouns, conjunctions, etc.  Identify the subject, verb and object (direct object and/or indirect object)


  1. Gas-powered lighting/ William Murdoch/ invent/ 1792/ Britain


  1. Incandescent light bulb/ invent/Thomas Edison/ 1876/ residents/ Newport, Rhode Island/ first street lighting/ 1880/ get


  1. Incandescent/ fluorescent/ lighting/ cities/ USA/ 1930s/ increased/ popularity.


  1. Broadway Avenue/ New York City/ name/ The Great White Way/people


  1. General Electric/ Westinghouse/ produce/ lighting/ streets/ highways/ 1920s/ World War II


PART II.  Convert the following sentences into passive voice. Then identify the subject, verb in passive form and the object.


  1. Charles Wheatstonesaw a ray of ultraviolet lighting while observing a electric discharge in mercury vapor in 1835.


  1. Peter Cooper Hewitt created the first mercury vapor light bulb in 1901


  1. Osram GEC Company and General Electric modified the light bulb in the 1930s.


  1. Cities used mercury-vapor street lighting beginning in the 1950s.


  1. Mercury vapor street lamps emit an emerald green color.



PART III. Now do the exact same procedure as in PART II but this time,  going from passive to active voice. Please be aware that some words may need to be added.

  1. Cobra-head lamp posts were introduced on American highways in 1957.


  1. Shortly afterwards, high-pressured sodium lighting was introduced by the McGraw-Edison Company.


  1. City streets and areas near space observatories are employed with orange-colored lighting.


  1. Many buildings are being lit with sodium lighting.


  1. Light pollution is being caused by too much sodium lighting.


  1. Cup-lighting, invented by the George Westinghouse Company in the 1940s, is being demanded by many cities because of their nostalgia.



PART IV. Supplemental exercises-

  • Draw a description of a cobra-head street lamp. Think of the animal cobra and its standing position while fighting a mongoose.


  • Draw a description of a cup-style street lamp, keeping in mind that the cup should be upside down.


  • Looking at the picture above, which of the lighting is considered high-pressured sodium, and why?



PART V.  Reciprocal: Can you construct these words into passive AND active voice WITHOUT ruining the meaning of the context? If so, identify in both voices the subject, predicate, object, attribute (if exists)  Some words may need to be added.

  1. George Stokes name  light  fluorescence  after   mineral   florite
  1. Heinrich Geissner invent    glass tube    in 1856   for flourescent lighting
  1. Georges Claude French scientist    produce      first neon lighting      in 1930
  1. General Electric obtain      patent rights      over      production of fluorescent lighting
  1. Flourescent lamps need         US Army        in World War II
  1. Flourescent street lamps employ      streets      Europe      after World War II
  1. Electric companies lower        lamps       on the streets         provide      better    lighting
  2. White LED Lighting  2005  test  scientist
  3. LED Street Lighting  US cities  2012  introduce and  energy  use  less any light bulb other
  4. The use of LED Lights   people  criticize  many  because  streets  bright too to be. 

True or False: This is an LED light:


Additional exercises can be found by clicking here and here.

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