When to Use Active Voice Versus Passive Voice

2 min read

Ask a writing instructor, and they might claim the greatest sin is the passive voice. It makes writing sound weak and ineffective. It creates tangled sentences with too many vague words. Is this too harsh? In moderation, passive voice can be useful. The key is to understand the differences between passive voice and active voice, and then know when to use each construction.

What Is Active Voice?

Every sentence has a subject and verb. In a sentence using active voice, the subject is performing the action. Here are a few examples:

  • The dog chewed the bone.
  • Shawn worked on his homework.
  • The director posted the cast list on Monday.
  • The bride is making her wedding plans.
  • Elizabeth painted her bedroom light blue.

Here, the subjects (the dog, Shawn, the director, the bride, Elizabeth) are performing the action of the verb (chewed, worked, posted, is making, painted). The active voice works to make the meaning clear for readers without becoming overly complex or wordy. Focusing on the actor makes the sentences stronger, shorter, and more direct.

What Is Passive Voice?

If the active voice is all about the subject, the passive voice is all about the verb. In sentences that use passive voice, the subject of the sentence has an action performed on them or it. Some examples:

  • James was persuaded to take the promotion.
  • Gwen has been given two choices for dinner.
  • The Great Wall of China is toured by thousands of visitors each year.
  • Penelope was dropped off at the movie theater.
  • Mistakes were made.

Action still happens, but the subjects of the sentence do not perform it. Someone else persuaded James, and someone else dropped off Penelope. These statements express some ambivalence, and the meaning may be less clear and straightforward. Passive voice statements often can’t stand alone, because additional information is needed about who is performing the action.

Should You Use Active or Passive Voice?

In general, your English teacher was right — use the active voice in most writing contexts. It’s typically a clearer and stronger way to communicate.

However, passive voice can be helpful in some settings, especially academic or scientific writing. Passive voice construction can avoid the first-person, if that’s required in more technical writing.

Passive: The samples were tested using a compound microscope.

Active: I tested the sample using a compound microscope.

Passive voice is also useful when the intent is to emphasize something other than the subject. Here, the author wants to keep the studies front and center, rather than the prize-winning scientists.

Passive: The genetics studies were conducted by Nobel Prize-winning scientists.

Active: Nobel Prize-winning scientists conducted the studies.

Sometimes passive voice leaves out key information to evoke a sense of mystery. For example, the sentence, “Your television has been damaged,” neglects to mention who busted the TV. Is this culprit unknown? Or would the speaker rather not say? So enigmatic!

Finally, as much as we love the clarity and control of active voice, it can become tedious. A good writer will vary sentence structure with an occasional passive voice sentence.

The lesson? Don’t count out the passive voice. At times, it can be appropriate and even sophisticated. But use it sparingly. A stronger and cleaner active voice is almost always the best choice.

Featured image credit: Deagreez/ iStock

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