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Active vs. Passive Voice

Updated on
April 20, 2022
Grammar
Active vs. Passive Voice

When people read your writing, they don’t just interpret its meaning through the words you chose. They also interpret it through your writing’s tone. This tone, just like your tone of voice when you’re speaking, is largely shaped by how you structure your sentences. For example, a sentence like “Everyone ate the ice cream” is clear and direct. A similar sentence, like “The ice cream was eaten by everyone” is longer and has a more detached tone. 

Those two sentences are examples of the active and passive voices. Certain kinds of writing are best suited for the active voice, while others require the passive voice. Understanding how, when, and why to use each is key to being an effective writer and speaker. 

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What is active voice, what is passive voice, and what are their different functions?

In the active voice, the subject acts upon its verb:

The dog chases the ball. 

In the passive voice, the subject receives the action from the verb:

The ball is being chased by the dog. 

Active and passive are the two grammatical voices in English. Neither is inherently better than the other, but each is suited to certain types of writing. There’s a reason why news anchors sound detached from the stories they’re reporting: They often speak using the passive voice. There’s also a reason why the authors of opinion pieces sound so sure of their positions: They usually write in the active voice. 

Although the idea of teachers telling their students to avoid the passive voice is repeated so frequently that it feels like a trope, the truth is that the passive voice does have its applications. We’ll get into those later. For now, let’s look at how to recognize active and passive voices in your writing and in others’ work. 

Active voice

In the active voice, the sentence’s subject performs the action. The subject of a sentence is always a noun or a pronoun. Here are two examples of sentences in the active voice: 

Shira likes birdwatching.

Her favorite time of day is twilight. 

No matter what verb you use, structuring your sentence so the subject performs the verb is writing in the active voice. 

The active voice has a direct, clear tone. Use it when you want the reader to focus on the subject of your sentence rather than on the action.

Passive voice

In the passive voice, the verb acts upon the subject. Or, to put it in the passive voice, the subject is acted upon by the verb. Every sentence in the passive voice contains two verbs: 

  • A conjugated form of to be”
  • The main verb’s past participle

Because of this, every sentence in the passive voice also includes a preposition. Often, sentences in the passive voice are longer than sentences in the active voice simply because they have to include additional words, like prepositions. Take a look at this sentence in the passive voice: 

Summer break is [conjugated form of “to be”] beloved [past participle of the main verb] by [preposition] students. 

The passive voice has a subtler tone than the active voice has. Sometimes your writing needs this tone, like when you want your reader to focus on the action being described or the verb’s direct object (which becomes the subject of the sentence) rather than on the noun performing the verb. This is why the passive voice is used in lab reports—it conveys scientific objectivity by minimizing the focus on the doer of the action. 

Active and passive voice usage

Although you may have been told that writing in the passive voice is “bad writing,” it’s actually more nuanced than that. For most of the writing you do, like emails, blog posts, and many kinds of essays, the active voice is a more effective way to communicate the ideas, themes, and facts you’re expressing. 

In certain kinds of writing, though, the passive voice is necessary. Think about how news reports about crime and incidents are usually written and delivered: 

A car was broken into on Elm Street last night. 

Cash was stolen from the register. 

In these kinds of reports, the passive voice is used to emphasize the action that occurred rather than the individual or group who committed the action, often because the perpetrator isn’t known or hasn’t yet been found guilty of the offense.

There are other kinds of writing where the action itself, rather than the doer of the action, is the primary focus. These include scientific and, in some cases, historical reports. These use the passive voice to keep the reader’s focus on what has happened or is happening. Here are a few examples:

The rats were placed into the maze. 

The governor was inaugurated at the statehouse. 

Notice how in both of these sentences, the doer of the action isn’t mentioned. That’s because it’s either implied or irrelevant. In the first example, the scientist performing the experiment is the one who placed the rats in the maze. In the second, the individual who conducted the inauguration ceremony isn’t relevant to what’s being expressed in the sentence. 

How to change passive voice to active voice

After you finish your first draft, read it. You might even want to read it aloud and listen to how it sounds. By reading and listening to your own work, you can catch awkward sentences and unclear phrasing and mark them as points to revise in your next draft. You’ll also hear where you used the active and passive voices and how they shift your work’s tone as a whole. 

Let’s say you’ve detected a few instances of the passive voice in your argumentative essay:

More flexible scheduling options are deserved by students. Significant amounts of tuition are paid to the university every year, and many feel the students are not receiving the level of service for which they are paying. 

See how these sentences feel like they’re dancing around the topic at hand rather than addressing it head-on? The writer isn’t making a particularly persuasive argument, but they can make their writing far more impactful by changing it to the active voice. 

Sentence-by-sentence, identify each subject. In the first sentence, the subject is “students.” The main verb in this sentence is “deserve” and the direct object is “more flexible scheduling options.” With these identified, restructure the sentence so the subject is now directly performing the verb. In the active voice, this sentence would read: 

Students deserve more flexible scheduling options. 

See how this version gets right to the point? It makes the writer sound more sure of themself too, which is a priority in argumentative writing. Let’s try changing the second sentence to the active voice: 

Students pay a significant amount of tuition to the university every year, and many feel they aren’t receiving the level of service they’re paying for.

As you can see from the compound sentence above, you can write any kind of sentence in the active or passive voice. Whether it’s a simple or complex sentence (or even a compound-complex sentence), you can dramatically alter your tone by simply reworking its structure. 

If you aren’t sure whether a sentence is active or passive based on how it sounds, use the rules we outlined above to identify the two voices in your work. If a sentence contains the conjugated form of “to be,” another verb in the past participle, and a preposition before the noun or pronoun who’s doing the action, it’s in the passive voice. And if the sentence is a whole lot simpler, with just a subject doing an action, it’s in the active voice. 

You can use either voice when you’re paraphrasing a longer work. Sometimes, such as in cases where you’re paraphrasing a scientific article, you’ll need to use the passive voice in your paraphrased version. In others, you might actually make the original clearer by paraphrasing in the active voice. 

Active and passive voice examples

Take a look at these examples of both the active and passive voices in action: 

Active: Is Ajani visiting us today?

Passive: Will we be visited by Ajani today?

As you see, questions can be written in either voice. Other kinds of sentences, like exclamatory and imperative sentences, are often best written in the active voice: 

Active: Please remove your shoes before entering my house. 

Passive: Shoes should be removed before entering my house. 

Active: Get out!

Passive: You are required to exit!

See how with the first pair, the passive voice makes the request feel more like a suggestion? In the second pair, the passive voice makes the message sound stilted and formal rather than an urgent exclamation.

Now take a look at these two examples: 

Active: I poured the solution into the beaker and heated it to 100℉.

Passive: The solution was poured into the beaker and heated to 100℉. 

Active and passive voice FAQs

What is active voice, what is passive voice, and what’s the difference?

In the active voice, the sentence’s subject performs the action. In the passive voice, the verb acts upon the subject. There are numerous differences between the two grammatical voices, but the most important is that the active voice is clearer and more direct, while the passive voice is subtler and can feel more detached. 

When should you use active vs. passive voice?

Use the active voice in any sentence that focuses on the doer of the action. Unless the majority of your writing is scientific or reporting incidents involving unknown perpetrators, most of the sentences you write should be in the active voice. 

The passive voice is meant for sentences where you need to emphasize the verb rather than the one performing the verb. 

How do you change passive voice to active? 

To change the passive voice to the active voice, determine who is actually performing the action in the sentence, then restructure the sentence so that the performer is the focus, clearly performing the verb upon the sentence’s direct object. 

  • Passive: Salsa dancing is a beloved activity in our community.
  • Active: Our community loves salsa dancing. 
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