Why is the passive voice so frowned upon? My editor flags every bit of passive voice in all my writing. But why do so many people prefer to write in the active voice? In this blog post, I’ll discuss the differences between the two voices and give tips on how to use them effectively. I’ll also provide a few examples to see how each voice is used in a sentence.
What Is Active and Passive Voice?
You are dealing with the active voice when you see a sentence where the subject performs an action. This keeps the sentence active and makes it feel more direct. However, in sentences written in the passive voice, the subject receives the action.
Active vs. Passive Voice
The Purdue Online Writing Lab uses the active and passive voice to show examples of the two ways of writing in English. Generally, I consider the active voice style of writing to be more direct and engaging, while the passive voice is more subdued and impersonal.
In active voice, the subject of a sentence takes action, usually by performing an action or making a statement. In this format, the subject comes first, followed by the verb and any additional information.
For example: “She is writing this essay.” Here, the subject is “she,” the person who is taking action. The verb here is “is writing,” indicating that she is doing something by typing this essay herself.
In passive voice, on the other hand, the subject of a sentence receives action instead of performing it. Let’s turn the previous active voice sentence into a passive voice one. It would sound something like, “This essay is written by her.”
So, when should you use the active or passive voice? That depends on your purpose and intended audience. Typically speaking. However, most writers use active voice whenever possible as it tends to be more direct and dynamic than its counterpart.
Active and Passive Voice Usage
Active voice and passive voice are two different ways of constructing sentences. In general, active voice is used to focus attention on the subject of the sentence, while passive voice puts more emphasis on the object. Active voice is considered more direct and engaging, making it a popular choice among writers.
However, there are also times when passive voice is preferable. For example, if I want to make my writing sound more objective or detached, I might use the passive voice.
In some cases, using passive voice can make your writing seem more formal or academic. That’s because, in the passive voice, we don’t necessarily care who is doing the action. After all, the latter is the most important part of the idea.
Examples of Sentences with Active and Passive Voice
Here are some passive and active sentences to help you understand how to use each in writing. The majority of sentences in fiction are written in active voice, but some genres, and even other kinds of writing, prefer passive.
Active Voice Sentences
- I knew I couldn’t hold that bag anymore; it was way too heavy.
- Candace didn’t pick up the package yesterday morning.
- Candace bought a new laptop.
Passive Voice Sentences
- The task wasn’t carried out by the trainees.
- Your phone was broken by Candace.
- The debt was paid.
- This movie was not well received by the audience.
- She will be remembered.
How Can You Tell Active or Passive Voice?
Writing in the active or passive voice can sometimes take time to tell which one you are using. In general, the active voice is shorter and more straightforward, while the passive voice tends to be longer and more complex. One way to distinguish between the two is by looking at the subjects of your sentences.
You use the active voice if the subject or doer performs the action described in the sentence. But if the subject receives that action or is acted upon, you use the passive voice.
Additionally, a key characteristic of passive sentences is an auxiliary verb like “was,” “have been,” or “will have been.” This often indicates that an action has already occurred or will be completed in the future.
So if you want to write clearly and concisely, it’s best to stick with the active voice whenever possible. But if you need to convey a sense of continuity or permanence, switching to the passive voice may help achieve your intended effect.
- The police carried out the mission successfully.
This is the active voice because the subject of the sentence “police” carries out the action.
- The mission was carried out successfully by the police.
Since the subject “police” receives the action “was carried out,” the sentence above is written in passive voice.
Should I Use Passive or Active Voice?
It depends on the context, in my opinion. While active voice is the better choice, some situations and contexts are better off written or spoken using passive choice.
In certain situations and contexts, passive voice is considered more appropriate than active. One of the most common times to use passive voice is when the speaker or writer wishes to avoid assigning blame or responsibility for an action, as in “Mistakes were made.”
In these cases, a more direct statement such as “Someone robbed the bank on Friday night” might appear accusatory. Additionally, passive voice can be useful when the focus of a sentence needs to remain on the receiving end of an action rather than the doer, such as in sentences like “The package was delivered today” or “The building was destroyed by fire.”
Overall, while it can sometimes seem less direct or engaging, there are many situations in which using passive voice is ultimately the best choice.
There are many situations and contexts where using active rather than passive voice is best. One such context is when clarity and directness are important. Writing in an active voice will allow you to convey a sense of urgency or significance, especially when presenting new information or sharing a strong opinion.
This can be especially useful in presentations, public speeches, and news articles, where it is crucial to quickly draw the reader’s attention and keep them engaged.
Another context where active voice can be particularly advantageous is when writing on technical subjects that may require more complex vocabulary or detailed explanations. Using more descriptive verbs and nouns in active voice can help make these concepts easier for the reader, allowing them to focus better on the text’s key points.
Here are some examples of side-by-side passive voice vs. active voice:
- Active voice: I slammed the door shut.
- Passive voice: The door was slammed shut (by me).
- Active voice: Sarah took the car to the repair shop.
- Passive voice: The car was taken to the repair shop (by Sarah).
How Do You Change a Sentence from Passive to Active?
You can take several steps to change a sentence from passive to active voice. First, you need to identify sentences that are written in passive voice. These sentences will typically use a form of the verb “to be,” such as “is,” “was,” or “have been.”
You should also identify the object of the sentence and determine whether it comes before or after the verb. You may want to consider whether the sentence’s subject is clear and if there is an obvious agent that can be used instead.
Once you have identified a passive sentence, you can transform it into an active one. Typically, this involves rewriting the entire sentence to focus on an agent rather than simply describing an action or event.
For example, you might start by removing words like “by” or “with” from your original sentence and replacing them with appropriate pronouns, such as “he” or “she.” You may want to consider restructuring the sentence to more clearly describe the subject and direct object involved.
Let’s take a look at some clear examples:
- Passive voice: That window was smashed into pieces by those kids next door.
- Turned into active voice: The kids next door smashed the window into pieces.
And another example:
- Passive voice: This project can be completed by any DIYer.
- Turned into active voice: Any DIYer can complete this project.
Why Is Active Voice Better Than Passive?
There is a longstanding debate in the writing community over which voice is better: active or passive. While both have their pros and cons, the overwhelming consensus among writers is that active voice is the preferred choice, for several key reasons.
First, since active voice emphasizes who is performing an action, it results in more dynamic and engaging writing. Using active rather than passive voice makes it easier to anticipate what will happen next in a piece of writing.
The passive voice is usually considered “fluff’ and can lead to confusion. Even so, there are situations where passive voice is a better choice.
For example, passive voice is a better option if you are a journalist reporting a crime and don’t know who did it. “A car was stolen downtown last night.”
Finally, because active voice uses simpler sentence structures than passive voice, it allows writers to better manage the flow of information and keep their readers engaged. Whether writing fiction or nonfiction, choosing your words carefully and using active rather than passive voice will always produce more powerful and engaging writing.
Active and Passive Voice Rules
There are two main types of voice in writing: active and passive. Active voice is better when the subject of a sentence acts, and passive voice is used when the subject of a sentence experiences an action being done to them. In general, it is usually better to use active voice than passive voice.
It is because active voice typically produces clearer, more concise sentences that are easier for readers to understand and engage with. Additionally, sentences written in active voice tend to be more direct and less wordy than those in passive.
Because of these benefits, most writing instructors will tell you to always use active voice over passive when possible. However, there are times when the passive voice may be appropriate, particularly if you want to emphasize the object of your sentence or highlight the emotions or feelings experienced by your subject.
Remember that active voice conveys a clear message without adding unnecessary words to your text. However, there are situations that call for passive voice use, especially when it’s not important who did the action, but the action itself (or the result) is what matters. I hope I helped you understand the difference!