Active voice is a sentence construction in which the subject is performing the action of a verb. In contrast, passive voice uses a form of the verb “to be” to shift emphasis with no agent (person or thing) acting as the performer of an action.
You will notice that in many tools when writing content online make you steer away from passive voice but when you’re reading other people’s work, you get used to passive voice. Using the active voice is preferred because it adds clarity to your writing and it is more efficient.
What’s the difference between active and passive voice?
In English, the active voice is the normal way to express actions and events. It places the subject of a sentence in active voice in the role of agent.
For example: “The teacher hit Mary” rather than “Mary was hit by the teacher”
The passive voice does not have this property, as it implies that something is acted upon instead of acting.
For example: “Mary was hit by a teacher” rather than “A teacher hit Mary”
Is passive voice always wrong?
Using passive voice, especially incorrect use of it, can make your writing unclear. In addition, using passive voice incorrectly can also mislead readers into false assumptions about the importance of either person or things being discussed. Sometimes using passive voice feels like a convenient way out of logical arguments.
When do you use it correctly?
You use it when you want to emphasize the object of the action instead of the person who is performing the action.
What are the exceptions in using passive voice?
Certain verbs, called “linking verbs,” can never be put into the passive voice. Linking verbs include: feel, smell, look, taste, seem, and appear. These verbs are said to describe a state of being.
Consider this sentence: “The cake tastes good.” The verb tastes does not indicate who is tasting the cake. Eating or smelling or touching would change the meaning of the verb, so it cannot be used in passive voice.
Passive Voice can also be used in the following cases:
A. When you do not know or do not want to mention the performer of an action, motive, etc.
B. When you want to put more focus on the object of the action, than on the person performing it. Often this is done in scientific papers and legal documents where some information is missing or unknown so that it seems unnatural to name a specific person as performer of an action.
C. When you want to emphasize a general idea expressed in the first sentence, rather than a specific person or thing. For example, “The problem was solved” rather than “Smith resolved the problem.”
D. When you want to emphasize that an action has been done by your own efforts or that you have taken some action without considering possible negative consequences of it. This is very common in journalistic works (e.g., articles and books on management, philosophy etc.
What’s the best way to write in the active voice?
There are three main ways that you can write for maximum clarity:
- Write out your subject followed by its verb: “The teacher hit Mary.”
- Write a gerund (ending with -ing) with your subject as the object of that gerund: “The teacher hit playing.”
- Put your subject as the object of a preposition: “The teacher hit Mary by hitting.”
There is no one right way to write in the active voice, but there are good guidelines. The first step is to be clear about what action you want to report on.
Don’t use a phrase like “the teacher was hitting.” Compare these two sentences: “The teacher was hitting Mary” and “Mary was hit by the teacher.”
Use compound or complex forms whenever reasonable. Compare: “Mary was hit” and “The teacher hit Mary.” The compound form is considered more direct and readable.
Consider these alternatives:
“A car came down the street.” (passive) vs. “I saw a car coming down the street.” (active)
In both cases, you are talking about the same event: a car came down the street. In the passive sentence, the focus is on what happened; in the active sentence, the focus is on who saw what.
“Mary’s phone rang.” (passive) vs. “I called Mary’s phone.” (active)
How do I turn passive voice into active voice?
Turn your passive sentence into an active sentence by making a small change or addition. This is called “switching the subject.”
“The cake tastes good.” ―> “The cake is tasty.”
“The teacher hit Mary.” ―> “The teacher hits Mary.”
“I saw a car coming down the street.” ―> “I saw a car coming down the street.”
“Mary’s phone rang.” ―> “I called Mary’s phone.”
It can be tricky to identify subjects in passive sentences. Sometimes it is easy: “Alice was hit by the teacher” has two clear subjects: Alice and the teacher. But sometimes your sentence can have more than one subject.
Here are two possibilities for “the teacher was hitting John”:
“John was hit by the teacher.” ―> “The teacher hit John.”
“John was hit by the teacher.” ―> “The teacher hits John, but it is not clear whose observing this event.”
Whatever the reason, you will need to clarify who is being observed. Examples: “The cake tastes good” has no subject. “The cake is tasty.” “The cake is tastier.”
“Mary’s phone rang” has a subject: Mary. “I called Mary’s phone.” “I called Mary’s phone, but she was not answering.”
A better way to write this sentence is as follows: “I called Mary’s phone, and it rang.” The subject in this example is clear.
How do I avoid wordiness in active voice?
One way to make your writing more clear and concise is to avoid wordy phrases. Instead of writing “A car came down the street,” try just “A car came down the street. Then it stopped.”
Remember that the purpose of a phrase is to communicate a single thought. If you need more words, it’s probably better to use another phrase instead of repeating the same idea over and over again. For example, rather than saying “the teacher hit Mary,” why not just say, “The teacher hit Mary.” Without that extra line, “hit by the teacher” sounds like one long sentence whereas “The teacher hit Mary.” does not.
Some people think this is nitpicking, but these examples illustrate how unnecessary sentences can create ambiguity in meaning. For example, “The teacher was struck by the student’s question” is not as clear as “The student’s question struck the teacher.”
In addition to avoiding unnecessary words, don’t repeat yourself. Many writers repeat words or phrases unnecessarily. Alternatively you could rewrite your sentence: “The teacher will hit Mary,” or “Mary has been hit by the teacher,” or “The teacher was hit by Mary.”
This is particularly common in dialogue, as in the following example: “Mary said, ‘Please don’t hit me.'” (That is redundant; Mary said Please don’t hit me.)
Another way to avoid wordiness is to eliminate adjectives and adverbs from the sentence. For example: “The car stopped at a red light.” The adjective red lights an unnecessary statement. Rewrite this with a more precise description: “The car stopped at the intersection at which there was a green light.
The wrap on active vs passive voice
Passive construction is when the action is transferred to another person or thing, whereas active voice uses the subject (for example, the actor in a play) to perform the action.
When writing content you should be aware that writing in an active voice is considered more interesting by readers, and more concise and direct.
On the other hand, passive voice is commonly used for object matching (see above). You can find this in technical writing or quality manuals.
So when you understand the purpose of your content and the audience that you are writing for this will then help you choose the correct voice.
For more tips visit our blog and if you are new content writing check out our content writing guide.