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?
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. This 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, which is why good writers prefer the active voice.
Passive voice, on the other hand, reverses the word order to make the object and the action come first. It puts the subject at the end of the sentence, and this construction can obscure, or hide, who is performing the action in your sentence. This tends to make your writing wordier and harder to follow — not a good choice in most cases.
Active vs. Passive Voice
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. For example:
- I really love this dog.
- Monkeys live in the jungle.
- She threw the ball to John.
- The dog ran back to the car.
- 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. For example:
- This dog is really loved by me.
- The jungle is where monkeys live.
- The ball was thrown to John.
- The car is where the dog ran back to.
- A mistake was made.
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. This is sometimes done on purpose, perhaps to avoid assigning blame or in cases where it’s not clear who did something.
If you have a composition that is too wordy, you may be able to change some passive sentences to active ones. For example:
- The ballots were counted by the volunteers. (passive) The volunteers counted the ballots. (active)
- The flowers were trampled by the dog. (passive) The dog trampled the flowers. (active)
- A serious crime was committed. (passive) Robert committed a serious crime. (active)
- A thorough investigation will be conducted (passive) The police chief will conduct a thorough investigation. (active)
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.
Active Voice Adds Impact
In most cases, using active voice will result in shorter, sharper sentences that are easier for the reader to follow. This makes your writing more clear 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. He tapped the ground once and hit the ball out of the park.
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. Active voice makes you sound in control of your writing, which helps the reader trust what you’re saying. For example:
- The test results prove that the drug works to kill cancer cells.
- People who run puppy mills care more about profit than pets.
- The Union army won the Civil War.
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.
- Mistakes were made.
It’s also appropriate to use passive voice when the subject of the sentence — the person who performed the action — is unknown. For example:
- The bank was robbed yesterday. Police are still looking for the culprits.
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 that you may think. Many inexperienced writers assume that longer sentences make them sound smarter, but passive-voice wordiness often does just the opposite. When in doubt, it’s better to choose the more direct active construction.