Most writing teachers will caution their students to avoid passive voice and encourage them to use active voice whenever possible. That sounds simple enough, but have you ever wondered why? Keep reading to learn more about active voice, how it differs from passive voice, and why it can add impact to your writing.
Using active voice in your writing means that the subject of the sentence comes first and performs the action that the rest of the sentence describes. Passive voice, on the other hand, reverses the word order to make the object and the action come first.
In most cases, using active voice will result in shorter, sharper sentences that are easier for the reader to follow. This makes your writing clearer and aids the reader in visualizing what's happening, especially when you use vivid action verbs. For example:
- The flowers bloomed while I looked for the lost ladybug.
- The batter stepped to the plate.
- My mother sold her house last week.
- Blake’s classmates applauded as he received his award.
Active voice is useful in fiction to create vivid images and move the plot along, but it's also important in academic writing. When you're trying to explain a complex subject in an essay or persuade a reader of your argument, it pays to keep your sentences short, clear, and convincing. For example:
- The test results prove that the drug kills cancer cells.
- People who run puppy mills care more about profit than pets.
- The Union army won the Civil War.
- Scientists believe that there may be life on other planets.
- Systemic racism threatens our democratic way of life.
- Our business plan indicates that we want to expand in the next few years.
- The Constitution guarantees Americans the right to free speech.
- Friction creates heat energy.
Active voice makes you sound in control of your writing, which helps the reader trust what you're saying. Unlike passive voice, which can make a writer sound unsure or noncommittal, active voice effectively communicates both a mental picture and a solid argument.
Sentences written in an active voice flow better and are easier to understand. Using active voice places the emphasis on the subject of the sentence and makes the sentence more straightforward and concise. Here are examples of sentences written in active voice:
- I really love this dog.
- Monkeys live in the jungle.
- She threw the ball to John.
- The squirrel approached the tree.
- I made a mistake.
Sentences using a passive voice are often harder to understand. Passive voice can make a sentence awkward and vague. The emphasis changes to the object of the sentence, or the thing that is acted upon, and often removes the subject entirely. For example:
- This dog is really loved by me.
- The jungle is lived in by monkeys.
- The ball was thrown to John. (No subject)
- The tree was approached by the squirrel.
- A mistake was made. (No subject)
Passive sentences usually have more words than active ones, which is one reason the reader has to work harder to get at the meaning. The sentence structure can also seem unwieldy because it's not immediately obvious who is performing the action.
If you have a composition that is too wordy, you may be able to change some passive sentences to active ones. For example:
- Passive: The ballots were counted by the volunteers.
- Active: The volunteers counted the ballots.
- Passive: The flowers were trampled by the dog.
- Active: The dog trampled the flowers.
- Passive: A serious crime was committed.
- Active: Robert committed a serious crime.
- Passive: A thorough investigation will be conducted.
- Active: The police chief will conduct a thorough investigation.
Writing in active voice creates a clear image in the reader's mind of who is doing what. This makes your writing much easier to understand, which is why strong writers prefer the active voice. Passive voice puts the subject at the end of the sentence, which tends to obscure who is performing the action in your sentence. This tends to make your writing wordier and harder to follow.
Need more help to distinguish between active and passive voice? Take a look at the YourDictionary Active vs. Passive Voice infographic for an easy-to-understand visual explanation, or read additional examples of active and passive voice.
While it's true that active voice adds punch to your writing, you may sometimes want to use the passive voice to minimize the impact of your sentence or to add some variety to a longer piece to avoid repetition. Businesses, politicians, and other official outlets often use passive voice to soften a negative sentence or to deflect blame. For example:
- Refunds will not be issued.
- Voters’ concerns have been considered.
- Mistakes were made.
- A decision has been made.
- Your input has been received.
It's also appropriate to use passive voice when the subject of the sentence – the person who performed the action – is unknown or doesn’t matter. For example:
- The bank was robbed yesterday.
- One million dollars was donated at the charity fundraiser.
- My phone was stolen from my purse.
- The baby was bathed and fed.
- A new appointment has been scheduled.
If you're ever uncertain about whether your sentence is active or passive, read it aloud to yourself, and ask who is performing the action. If the answer isn't already in your sentence, you have likely written in passive voice. If you want the sentence to be active, rewrite it so the person performing the action – or making the mistake – is stated clearly at the beginning of the sentence instead.
Knowing when to use active and passive voice comes with practice. There are certainly times when using the passive voice makes sense, but it's less often than you may think. Many inexperienced writers assume that longer sentences make them sound smarter, but passive-voice wordiness often does just the opposite. For more writing tips that are sure to impress readers, check out an article that offers helpful grammar hacks for your next editing session.