I am a fan of good writing. Good writing communicates ideas to the minds of your readers. When people read your writing, they don’t just interpret its meaning through the words you chose. They also interpret it through your writing’s tone. This tone, just like your tone of voice when you’re speaking, is largely shaped by how you structure your sentences. For example, a sentence like “Everyone went to the game” is clear and direct. A similar sentence, like “The game was attended by everyone” is longer and has a more detached tone.
Those two sentences are examples of active and passive voices. Certain kinds of writing are best suited for the active voice, while others require the passive voice. Understanding how, when, and why to use each is key to being a writer and speaker who is not only effective but also credible and important.
What is active voice, what is passive voice, and what are their different functions?
In the active voice, the subject acts upon its verb: My son played basketball on the driveway..
In the passive voice, the subject receives the action from the verb: Basketball was being played by my son.
Active and passive are the two grammatical voices in English. This talk of voices is confusing, but imagine soprano and bass voices in singing. Neither is inherently better than the other, but each is suited to certain types of singing. So too, passive and active voices are suited to different types of writing. There’s a reason why news anchors sound detached from the stories they’re reporting: they often speak using the passive voice. There’s also a reason why the authors of opinion pieces sound so sure of their positions: they usually write in the active voice.
Although the idea of teachers telling their students to avoid the passive voice is repeated so frequently that it feels like a trope, the truth is that the passive voice has an important place in English. We’ll get into those later. For now, let’s look at how to recognize active and passive voices in your writing and in others’ work.
In the active voice, the sentence’s subject performs the action. The subject of a sentence is always a noun or a pronoun. Here are two examples of sentences in the active voice:
Michael likes birdwatching.
His favorite time of day is the early morning.
No matter what verb you use, structuring your sentence so the subject performs the verb is writing in the active voice.
The active voice has a direct, clear tone. Use it when you want the reader to focus on the subject of your sentence rather than on the action.
In the passive voice, the verb is received by the subject. Every sentence in the passive voice contains two verbs:
- A conjugated form of “to be”
- The main verb’s past participle (e.g. in do, did, done, “done” is the past participle)
As such, every sentence in the passive voice also includes a preposition. Often, sentences in the passive voice are longer than sentences in the active voice simply because they have to include additional words, like prepositions. Take a look at this sentence in the passive voice: Summer break is [conjugated form of “to be”] beloved [past participle of the main verb] by [preposition] students.
The passive voice has a subtler tone than the active voice has. Sometimes your writing needs this tone, like when you want your reader to focus on the action being described or the verb’s direct object (which becomes the subject of the sentence) rather than on the noun performing the verb. This is why the passive voice is used in lab reports—it conveys bias reduction by minimizing the focus on the doer of the action.
Active and passive voice usage
Although you may have been told that writing in the passive voice is “bad writing,” it’s actually more nuanced than that. For most of the writing you do, like emails, blog posts, and many kinds of essays, the active voice is a more effective way to communicate the ideas, themes, and facts you’re expressing.
In certain kinds of writing, though, the passive voice is necessary. Think about how news reports about crime and incidents are usually written and delivered:
A car was broken into on 66th Street last night.
Cash was stolen from the register.
In these kinds of reports, the passive voice is used to emphasize the action that occurred rather than the individual or group who committed the action, often because the perpetrator isn’t known or hasn’t yet been found guilty of the offense.
There are other kinds of writing where the action itself, rather than the doer of the action, is the primary focus. These include scientific and, in some cases, historical reports. These use the passive voice to keep the reader’s focus on what has happened or is happening. Here are two examples:
The rats were placed into the maze.
The president was elected.
Notice how in both of these sentences, the doer of the action isn’t mentioned. That’s because it’s either implied or irrelevant. In the first example, the scientist performing the experiment is the one who placed the rats in the maze. In the second, the people who did the voting and the counting of the votes aren’t important to what’s being expressed in the sentence.
How to change passive voice to active voice
After you finish your first draft, read it. You might even want to read it aloud and listen to how it sounds. By reading and listening to your own work, you can catch awkward sentences and unclear phrasing and mark them as points to revise in your next draft. You’ll also hear where you used the active and passive voices and how they shift your work’s tone as a whole.
Let’s say you’ve detected a few instances of the passive voice in your argumentative essay:
More flexible scheduling options are deserved by students. Significant amounts of tuition are paid to the university every year, and many feel the students are not receiving the level of service for which they are paying.
Can you notice how these sentences feel like they’re dancing around the topic at hand rather than addressing it head-on? The writer isn’t making a particularly persuasive argument, but they can make their writing far more impactful by changing it to the active voice.
Sentence-by-sentence, identify each subject. In the first sentence, the subject is “students.” The main verb in this sentence is “deserve” and the direct object is “more flexible scheduling options.” With these identified, restructure the sentence so the subject is now directly performing the verb. In the active voice, this sentence would read:
Students deserve more flexible scheduling options.
Clearly, this version gets right to the point? It also makes the writer sound more certain, which is a priority in argumentative writing. Let’s try changing the second sentence to the active voice:
Students pay a significant amount of tuition to the university every year, and many feel they aren’t receiving the level of service they’re paying for.
As you can see from the compound sentence above, you can write any kind of sentence in the active or passive voice. Whether it’s a simple or complex sentence (or even a compound-complex sentence), you can dramatically alter your tone by simply reworking its structure.
If you aren’t sure whether a sentence is active or passive based on how it sounds, use the rules we outlined above to identify the two voices in your work. If a sentence contains the conjugated form of “to be,” another verb in the past participle, and a preposition before the noun or pronoun who’s doing the action, it’s in the passive voice. And if the sentence is a whole lot simpler, with just a subject doing an action, it’s in the active voice.
You can use either voice when you’re paraphrasing a longer work. Sometimes, such as in cases where you’re paraphrasing a scientific article, you’ll need to use the passive voice in your paraphrased version. In others, you might actually make the original clearer by paraphrasing in the active voice.
Active and passive voice examples
Take a look at these examples of both the active and passive voices in action:
Active: Is Ben visiting us today?
Passive: Will we be visited by Ben today?
As you see, questions can be written in either voice. Other kinds of sentences, like exclamatory and imperative sentences, are often best written in the active voice:
Active: Please remove your shoes before entering my house.
Passive: Shoes should be removed before entering my house.
Active: Get out!
Passive: You are required to exit!
See how with the first pair, the passive voice makes the request feel more like a suggestion? In the second pair, the passive voice makes the message sound stilted and formal rather than an urgent exclamation.
Now take a look at these two examples:
Active: I poured the solution into the beaker and heated it to 100℉.
Passive: The solution was poured into the beaker and heated to 100℉.
Active and passive voice FAQs
What is active voice, what is passive voice, and what’s the difference?
In the active voice, the sentence’s subject performs the action. In the passive voice, the verb acts upon the subject. There are numerous differences between the two grammatical voices, but the most important is that the active voice is clearer and more direct, while the passive voice is subtler and can feel more detached.
When should you use active vs. passive voice?
Use the active voice in any sentence that focuses on the doer of the action. Unless the majority of your writing is scientific or reporting incidents involving unknown perpetrators, most of the sentences you write should be in the active voice.
The passive voice is meant for sentences where you need to emphasize the verb rather than the one performing the verb.
How do you change passive voice to active?
To change the passive voice to the active voice, determine who is actually performing the action in the sentence, then restructure the sentence so that the performer is the focus, clearly performing the verb upon the sentence’s direct object.
- Passive: Salsa dancing is a beloved activity in our community.
- Active: Our community loves salsa dancing.
The Passive Voice: When, Why, and How
The passive voice is often maligned by teachers and professors as a bad writing habit. Or, to put it in the active voice, teachers and professors across the English-speaking world malign the passive voice as a bad writing habit.
What is the passive voice?
In general, the active voice makes your writing stronger, more direct, and, you guessed it, more active. The subject is something, or it does the action of the verb in the sentence. With the passive voice, the subject is acted upon by some other performer of the verb. (In case you weren’t paying attention, the previous two sentences use the type of voice they describe.)
But the passive voice is not incorrect. In fact, there are times when it can come in handy. Read on to learn how to form the active and passive voices, when using the passive voice is a good idea, and how to avoid confusing it with similar forms.
The difference between active and passive voice
While tense is all about time references, voice describes whether the grammatical subject of a clause performs or receives the action of the verb. Here’s the formula for the active voice: [subject]+[verb (performed by the subject)]+[optional object]
Annette drew the picture.
In a passive voice construction, the grammatical subject of the clause receives the action of the verb. So, the ball from the above sentence, which is receiving the action, becomes the subject. The formula: [subject]+[some form of the verb to be]+[past participle of a transitive verb]+[optional prepositional phrase]
The picture was drawn by Annette.
That last little bit—“by Annette”—is a prepositional phrase that tells you who the performer of the action is. But even though Annette is the one doing the drawing, she’s no longer the grammatical subject. A passive voice construction can even drop her from the sentence entirely:
The picture was drawn.
When (and when not) to use the passive voice
If you’re writing anything with a definitive subject who’s performing an action, you’ll be better off using the active voice. And if you search your document for instances of was, is, or were and your page lights up with instances of passive voice, it may be a good idea to switch to active voice.
That said, there are times when the passive voice does a better job of presenting an idea, especially in certain formal, professional, and legal discussions. Here are three common uses of the passive voice:
- Reports of crimes or incidents with unknown perpetrators
My car was stolen yesterday.
If you knew who stole the car, it probably wouldn’t be as big a problem. The passive voice emphasizes the stolen item and the action of theft.
- Scientific contexts
The rat was placed into a T-shaped maze.
Who places the rat into the maze? Scientists, of course. But that’s less important than the experiment they’re conducting. Therefore, passive voice.
- When you want to emphasize an action itself and the doer of the action is irrelevant or distracting:
The president was sworn in on a cold January morning.
How many people can remember off the top of their heads who swears in presidents? Clearly the occasion of swearing in the commander in chief is the thing to emphasize here. In each of the above contexts, the action itself—or the person or thing receiving the action—is the part that matters. That means the performer of the action can appear in a prepositional phrase or be absent from the sentence altogether.
Creative ways to use the passive voice in writing
The above examples show some formal uses of the passive voice, but some writers take advantage of the shift in the emphasis it provides for other reasons. Here are moments when the passive voice is a stylistic decision that suits the author’s writing goals.
- Avoid getting blamed
There are times when you want to get away with something without making it crystal clear who’s at fault. The classic example:
“Mistakes were made.” —most politicians
Who made them? Is anyone taking responsibility? What’s the solution here? One political scientist dubbed this structure the “past exonerative” because it’s meant to exonerate a speaker from whatever foul they may have committed. In other words, drop the subject, and get off the hook.
- Beat around the bush
Jane Austen is a master of poking fun at her characters so euphemistically that it seems almost polite, and the passive voice is one of her favorite methods for doing that.
“[He] pressed them so cordially to dine at Barton Park every day till they were better settled at home that, though his entreaties were carried to a point of perseverance beyond civility, they could not give offense.” —Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility
Austen could have rephrased this sentence like so:
“Though Mr. Middleton carried his entreaties to a point of perseverance beyond civility, they could not give offense.”
Though maybe she means something closer to:
“Mr. Middleton pushed his invitations beyond the point of politeness and into pushiness, but he still meant well.”
In cases like this, the passive voice allows for more polite phrasing, even if it’s also a little less clear.
- Make your reader pay more attention to the something
This is like the president getting sworn in: the thing that gets the action of the verb is more important than the people performing the action.
“That treasure lying in its bed of coral, and the corpse of the commander floating sideways on the bridge, were evoked by historians as an emblem of the city drowned in memories.” —Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera
Here, you could invert the sentence to say “Historians evoked that treasure (and so on).” But that would take the focus away from that oh-so-intriguing treasure and the corpse. And since the historians are less important here, the author makes the choice to stress the key idea of the sentence through the passive voice.
Here’s another famous example that puts the emphasis on what happens to the subject, instead of on what the subject is doing:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” —The Declaration of Independence, 1776
“All men” (and these days, women, too) get boosted to the front of the phrase because their equality and rights are the focus. It makes sense that a statement declaring independence would focus on the people who get that independence, after all.
So writers use it. Can you?
The above examples lean toward the literary side of things, but don’t forget that there are times when the passive voice is useful and necessary in daily life. In each of the sentences below, the passive voice is natural and clear. Rewriting these sentences in the active voice renders them sterile, awkward, or syntactically contorted. Passive: Bob Dylan was injured in a motorcycle accident. Active: A motorcycle accident injured Bob Dylan. Passive: Elvis is rumored to be alive. Active: People rumor Elvis to be alive. Passive: Don’t be fooled! Active: Don’t allow anything to fool you!
Passive voice misuse
Sometimes what looks like passive voice isn’t passive voice at all. If you’re not careful, even the most careful eye can mistake the following sentences for passive voice.
Annette’s favorite activity is kicking. The bank robbery took place just before closing time. There is nothing we can do about it. There were a great number of dead leaves covering the ground.
Despite what any well-meaning English teachers may have told you, none of the sentences above are written in the passive voice. The sentence about the leaves, in fact, was (wrongly) presented as an example of the passive voice by none other than Strunk and White in The Elements of Style. Here’s how to remember: using the verb to be doesn’t automatically put a verb phrase into the passive voice. You also need a past participle. That’s how to keep passive voice masqueraders from fooling you.