Active Versus Passive Voice
Updated: Jul 1
There are many ways to structure a sentence to convey the same information and still be grammatically correct. In this chapter, I talk about where the subject and verb fall within the sentence, resulting in all sentences being essentially written in one of two voices: active or passive. Voice is the term used to describe whether a verb is active or passive. When a sentence is written in the active voice, the subject performs the action; in the passive voice, the subject receives the action.
Active voice—the subject performs the action.
Example: The teacher handed out the instructions.
Passive voice—the subject is a recipient of the action.
Example: The instructions were handed out by the teacher.
While it is not wrong to use passive voice, active voice is generally preferred by editors. The point of the active voice is to highlight the logical flow of the action, from the subject (or doer) to the object (or receiver) of the action, making sentences more direct.
Passive: Antonio’s jugular was slit open by the intruder. Active: The intruder (doer) slit open Antonio’s (receiver) jugular.
Passive: The tainted crackers that had fallen to the ground were eaten by the baby. Active: The baby (doer) ate the tainted crackers (receiver) that had fallen to the ground.
Consider these two paragraphs describing Samantha’s reaction to having been fired.
First example: Samantha’s employment was terminated in a short, emotionless letter signed by her manager and obviously written by the company’s legal department. The statement “This decision is not reversible” caught her attention—why there was no opportunity for discussion angered her. The bogus reason given for the termination made her cringe—she had never been told that her performance had been unsatisfactory. Her next month’s rent would not even be covered by the meager severance check she would be getting. Desperation was etched on her face as tears made their way down her cheeks.
Second example: Samantha read the short, emotionless letter terminating her employment. Signed by her manager, but obviously written by the company’s legal department, one particular statement caught her attention: “This decision is not reversible.” She cringed at the bogus reason given for the termination—never having been told that her performance had been unsatisfactory—and was angered by the lack of opportunity for discussion. The meager severance check she would be getting, not even enough to cover her next month’s rent, caused her to cry.
Not only is the second account of what happened—the one written in active voice—more direct than the first one that is written in passive voice, but it was written with fewer words.
When to Use Active Voice
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.
· clearly identifies the action and who is performing that action.
· conveys energy and directness that passive voice isn't capable of conveying.
· helps readers to experience what the character is experiencing right along with them.
· usually results in sentences that are less wordy.
· is more apt to keep readers interested and engaged.
Using active voice can be a way for writing to flow seamlessly, be clear and concise, and be free from unnecessary words and confusingly long sentences. It is the most straightforward way to present your ideas, because it creates a clear image in the reader's mind of who is doing what. This makes your writing much easier to understand and is why good writers, editors, and readers prefer active voice.
How to Spot a Sentence in Passive Voice
To spot passive voice sentences, look at what happened and look at who was responsible for doing it. If the person or thing responsible for doing the action is either omitted or occurs in the sentence after the thing that happened, and you see a past participle following some form of “to be,” it’s passive voice, as in these examples.
The film is (form of “to be”) viewed (past participle) by the students.
The old woman was (form of “to be”) driven (past participle) to the store by her neighbor.
The grapes are (form of “to be”) crushed (past participle) in a barrel by Gianna.
The biscuits were (form of “to be”) eaten (past participle) by the street beggars.
Problems with Passive Voice
Sometimes passive voice can lead to awkward, lengthy, and/or convoluted sentences instead of straightforward ones.
Passive: Her body odor was found to be disgusting by Matt.
Active: Matt found her body odor disgusting.
Passive: By then, the pancake batter will have been thoroughly mixed by the children.
Active: By then, the children will have thoroughly mixed the pancake batter.
When to Use Passive Voice
Passive voice is not always the worse choice to make. It is perfectly acceptable and recommended to use passive voice when:
You do not know who performed the action.
Example: The NO DUMPING sign had obviously been ignored.
The person who performed the action is not important to the meaning of the sentence.
Example: Your performance was evaluated by three people.
You want to emphasize the action rather than the one performing the action.
Example: Each spring, the town was infiltrated by thousands of college students.
You want to create an authoritative tone.
Example: After a long discussion, the amendment was ratified by the majority of members.
When the person or thing receiving the action is more important than the subject performing it.
Example: The president was sworn in on the steps of the White House.
Understanding the difference between active and passive voice is an important skill for writers. Both styles have a place in writing fiction when used appropriately—the choice between the two depending on the purpose, context, and content of the sentence.
Shiau, Yvonne (content marketer, USA). Reedsy Blog: Passive Voice Vs Active Voice: Finally Understand the Difference. https://blog.reedsy.com/passive-voice-active/.
Strathy, Glen C. “Avoiding the Passive Voice.” How to Write a Book Now. (No date.) https://www.how-to-write-a-book-now.com/the-passive-voice.html.