When writing blogs, articles, and novels, understanding the active and passive voice is important. Most style guides, such as the APA Manual of Style or AMA prefer that author’s use the active voice in general. But what does active voice mean? Is it required to always use active voice? Not necessarily. Let’s discuss what the different styles are what when it is appropriate to use one or the other.
How do you tell active versus passive voice?
Voice is the form of the verb that shows the reader if the subject of the sentence performs the action (active) or has the action done to it (passive).
In the active voice, the actor (or agent) performing the action of the verb is the focus. In the passive voice, the agent of the action/verb is deemphasized, and the object/result is emphasized.
Consider these two examples.
John opened the door.
This is the active voice. Why? John is the focus of this sentence, not the door. John himself is the agent of change.
The door was opened by John.
In this sentence, the door is the primary focus and not John. In the passive voice, the agent can be thought of as passively undergoing the action of the verb. Passive sentences deemphasize the importance of the agent performing the action.
Thus, the first sentence is about John; the second is about the door.
Remember that in an active voice, the subject performs an action (verb) upon an object (who or what receives the action).
Let’s break down the first sentence. John is the subject and opened is the verb/action. The door is the object of the sentence. He is taking the action of opening a door.
Subject > verb > object
With passive voice, it is just the opposite. The passive voice tells what is done to an object versus who did it. Where neutrality is important, such as in academic papers, the who did the action is eliminated altogether.
Object > verb > subject
Passive sentences are often created by moving the primary noun (or agent) to the end of the sentence.
This can sometimes cause confusion and muddy up the meaning of the sentence. Do you focus on the door or on John? Active voice is often considered more direct, concise and more natural for readers to understand because of the subject > verb > object structure.
When is passive voice okay?
There are sometimes good reasons to use passive voice. For example, if you want to redirect the focus to the object of the verb. In this case, let’s say it doesn’t matter who shut the door. It was just important that it was closed. The sentence could be just, “The door was shut.”
Here are a few examples of when passive voice is okay to use.
- If the subject of a sentence is already known to the reader, such as a person or past information, use passive voice.
- Conversely, use passive voice when the subject is either unknown or needs to be kept confidential.
- You might also choose the passive voice if you wish to focus on the action (verb) itself.
- Another good reason to use it is if you are writing expository background or trying to provide an explanation for an action.
- Passive voice is most often used in scholarly and academic papers to produce an objective (neutral) voice. Passive voice is good when explaining a neutral process, for example. There is not one specific subject, as anyone can be performing the procedure.
Changing sentences to active voice
Active voice is the dominant voice used with the majority of the technical, professional, and online writing. Here are some tips for rearranging your sentence structure for active voice.
Pronouns. One key is to look for pronouns. Sentences with a passive voice often end with objective pronouns, such as “by me,” “by her,” etc. Active voice usually begins with a subject pronoun, such as “I,” “We,” “She.” Let’s take the sentence: “The door was closed by him.” Simply change that to “He closed the door.”
Passive to active
“The door was closed by me” becomes “I closed the door.”
“The report was modified by us” becomes “We modified the report.”
“The car was wrecked by you” becomes “You wrecked the car.”
“The dog was walked by him” becomes “He walked the dog.”
“The horse was ridden by her” becomes “She rode the horse.”
“She was scared by it” becomes “It scared her.”
“The report was finished by them” becomes “They finished the report.”
Try to use “to be” verbs sparingly. These verbs include: “to be,” “am, is, are,” “was and were,” “being,” “been,” “be,” “were,” and “be.” Overuse of these verbs can make your writing sound vague and can make the actors/subjects of the sentence unclear. “To be” verbs are used more in narrative forms. If you are writing a book, it is considered okay under certain circumstances. If you are writing a blog post, try to limit the use of these verbs.
For example, let’s use the verb “was.” The concerto was performed by John Smith. Is the concerto or John Smith the subject? If you are highlighting who played the piece, then re-arrange the sentence. John Smith performed the concerto.
Try to replace the verb with what are called “show me” verbs. For example, rather than was performed, we simply rearranged the sentence and used the verb “performed.”
Another standard method is turning nouns into _ify verbs. For example, quantity can become quantified, and identity becomes identified. Instead of “the suspect was identified by Susan,” you would say, “Susan identified the suspect.”
Also, be aware of your use of the words “by.” For example, the door was opened by John. In this case, you can get an idea of how to re-arrange the sentence. “John opened the door.”
[I’m surprised that door hasn’t fallen off its hinges by now.]
Examples of active and passive voices
Here are some cases of sentences with active and passive voices.
Active. My mother (subject) thanked (verb) the dog walker (object).
Passive. The dog walker (object) was thanked (verb) by my mother (object).
Active. Mike (subject) ate (verb) the pizza.
Passive. The pizza (object) was eaten (verb) by Mike (subject).
Active. We (subject) can finish (verb) this report (object) tomorrow morning if all of us contribute some time.
Passive. This report (object) can be finished (verb) tomorrow morning if some time is contributed by all of us (subject).
Active. Uncle Mike (subject) brought (verb) my sister a puppy (object).
Passive. The puppy (object) was brought (verb) to my sister by our Uncle Mike (subject).
Active. Thousands of tourists (subject) view (verb) Niagara Falls (object) every year.
Passive. Niagara Falls (object) is viewed (viewed) by thousands of tourists (subject) every year.
Active. We had helped her to the car.
Passive. She had been helped to the car by us.
One Final Tip
Use active voice when it is vital that the reader knows who performed an action. Did the president of the college make the speech or the dean? If it is not essential for the reader to understand, then the passive voice is okay to use.