Active vs. Passive Voice—What Are They and How Do I Use Them?
Active voice means that a sentence has a subject that acts upon its verb. Passive voice means that a subject is a recipient of a verb’s action. You may have learned that the passive voice is weak and incorrect, but it isn’t that simple. When used correctly and in moderation, the passive voice is fine.
In English grammar, verbs have five properties: voice, mood, tense, person, and number; here, we are concerned with voice. The two grammatical voices are active and passive.
What is Active Voice?
When the subject of a sentence performs the verb’s action, we say that the sentence is in the active voice. Sentences in the active voice have a strong, direct, and clear tone. Here are some short and straightforward examples of active voice.
The cashier counted the money.
The dog chased the squirrel.
All three sentences have a basic active voice construction: subject, verb, and object. The subject monkey performs the action described by adore. The subject the cashier performs the action described by counted. The subject the dog performs the action described by chased. The subjects are doing, doing, doing—they take action in their sentences. The active voice reminds us of the mega-popular Nike slogan, “Just Do It.”
What is Passive Voice?
A sentence is in the passive voice, on the other hand, when the subject is acted on by the verb. The passive voice is always constructed with a conjugated form of to be plus the verb’s past participle. Doing this usually generates a preposition as well. That sounds much more complicated than it is, because passivity is actually quite easy to detect. For these next examples of passive voice, we will transform the three active sentences above to illustrate the difference.
The money was counted by the cashier.
The squirrel was chased by the dog.
Let’s take a closer look at the first pair of sentences, “Monkeys adore bananas” and “Bananas are adored by monkeys.” The active sentence consists of monkeys (subject) + adore (verb) + bananas (object). The passive sentence consists of bananas (object) + are adored (a form of to be plus the past participle adored) + by (preposition) + monkeys (subject). Making the sentence passive flipped the structure and necessitated the preposition by. In fact, all three of the transformed sentences above required the addition of by.
Active Voice vs. Passive Voice—Which Is Better?
There is no question that using the active voice conveys a strong, clear tone and that the passive voice is subtler and weaker. Here’s some good advice: don’t use the passive voice just because you think it sounds a bit fancier than the active voice.
That said, there are times the passive voice is useful and called for. Take “The squirrel was chased by the dog,” for example. That sentence construction would be helpful if the squirrel were the focus of your writing and not the dog.
A good rule of thumb is to try to put the majority of your sentences in the active voice. This is especially true in business.
How to Change a Sentence in Passive Voice to Active Voice
Here is an example of a business communication that could be strengthened by abandoning the passive voice.
That sentence is not incorrect, but it does sound a bit stiff and dishonest. It sounds less trustworthy than it could—almost evasive. Who wants to do business with a company that avoids taking full responsibility by slipping into formal passive voice territory? Face the responsibility head on instead. Own it.
To make that sentence active rather than passive, I identified the subject: we. It was “our company” that was responsible.
The structure of this sentence is weak because it doesn’t identify the subjects in either clause. Let’s unveil them. Who might have questions to ask? The person being addressed: you. Who will be doing the reaching (by calling the number below)? It is still the communication’s recipient.