Active Voice Versus Passive Voice

As a writer you’ve probably been told at one point or another to use active voice and avoid passive voice—perhaps it was even a teacher’s comment added at the end of a high school essay. If you’re anything like I was before I studied grammar, you probably scratched your head and thought what the heck is passive voice? It’s pretty hard to avoid doing something when you have no idea what you’re supposed to be avoiding. My aim in this blog is to help you understand what active and passive voice are so you can avoid the common mistake many novice writers make: overusing passive voice.

What is Active Voice?

Active voice is where the subject of a sentence performs the verb. A straightforward example of this is I love you. ‘I’ is the subject as it is performing the action verb ‘love’ on the object ‘you’.

Now maybe I’ve confused you with my references to subjects and objects, so here’s a quick definition:

Subject: The person or thing doing something (performing the verb).

Object: The person or thing having something done to them/it (receiving the verb).

Let’s look at another example: the writer wrote a novel. Here the subject is ‘the writer’ as they are performing the verb ‘wrote’, and ‘the novel’ is the object as it is the thing being written (the thing receiving the verb).

What is Passive Voice?

Passive voice occurs when the verb acts upon the subject instead of the object. In other words, the object gets promoted to subject. If you re-wrote the above examples in passive voice, they would look like this: you are loved by me; the novel was written by the writer. In these two sentences, the subjects ‘the writer’ and ‘me’ are now being acted upon instead of performing the acting.

Confused? It’s okay if you are, let’s try and make it simpler. If you’re having trouble identifying the subject and object in a sentence just ask the following three questions. Firstly find your verb by asking what action is being performed? Next find your subject by asking who or what is performing the action? Lastly find your object by asking who or what is having the action performed on them? Let’s try asking these questions with the following example: the pot was grown in by the flower. What action is being performed? Growing—‘grown’, this is the verb. Who or what is growing? ‘The flower’, this is the subject. Who or what is the flower growing in? ‘The pot’, this is the object. If the subject comes after the verb, it’s generally a good guess that your sentence is in passive voice. To change it to active voice, simply swap the subject and object: the flower grew in the pot.

One thing to remember with passive voice is that sometimes the subject is omitted from the sentence—a very common trend among politicians when they don’t want to accept blame. An example would be mistakes were made. This sentence doesn’t tell us who made the mistakes. To change it to active you would need to add a subject: the mayor made mistakes.

Is Passive Voice Always Wrong?

No, not at all. The problem with passive voice is that it can be vague, awkward, and just plain wordy. I think most people can agree that I love cake is much neater and more concise than the cake is loved by me. With that said, there are circumstances where passive voice works better than active voice. Sometimes in a sentence you’ll want to draw your readers’ attention to the object rather than the subject, such as in this example: shots were fired. Here the emphasis is placed on the shots being fired; this emphasis would be somewhat lost if the sentence was written in active voice: someone fired shots.   

Now that you’re all experts on active and passive voice, you’ll be able to avoid wordy, obscure sentences and save passive voice as a stylistic tool for emphasising the object of a sentence.

Sarah, Editor at Aurora House

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