The difference between active voice and passive voice is an important one, but not one that’s always easy to distinguish.
In this article, we’ll explore what active voice and passive voice are, look at examples of both, consider the reasons why one is better than the other, and determine if there are any instances in which passive voice should be used. By the end, you should be able to tell the two grammatical structures apart and know how to change your sentences from active to passive voice.
Active Voice vs. Passive Voice
What is Active Voice?
Active voice is the preferred grammatical construction of sentences in the English language. It is denoted by the following distribution of linguistic elements: subject + verb + object. The subject performs the action which is expressed by the verb and received by the object. Active voice is almost always the way one wants to phase their sentence when writing.
Examples of Active Voice
- She drove the car.
- The janitor cleaned the whole school.
- The government ignored families.
- The storm destroyed the city.
- She slammed the brakes before the accident.
- The flooding damaged your house.
- Local officials are considering action on these issues.
- The new producer remixed the soundtrack.
What is Passive Voice?
Passive voice is defined by its opposition to active voice. In a passive voice sentence, the preferred grammatical arrangement of subject + verb + object changes. The “subject” and “object” switch places. This means that the most important part of the sentence ends up at the end. This, along with several other passive voice features, makes it the less preferred way of writing. Explore the other reasons below.
Why is Passive Voice Worse than Active Voice?
There are several important reasons why writers, editors, students, and teachers choose not to use passive voice.
- Passive voice makes sentences sound less interesting.
- The sentences are longer.
- The sentences are also more complex and harder to understand.
- The emphasis falls on the wrong part of the sentence.
- Readers have a harder time connecting to the writing.
- Puts distance between the subject matter and the reader.
Examples of Passive Voice Sentences
- The car was driven by her.
- The whole school was cleaned by the janitor.
- Families were ignored by the government.
- The city was destroyed by the storm.
- The brakes were slammed by her before the accident.
- Your house has been damaged by flooding.
- Action on these issues is being considered by local officials.
- The soundtrack was remixed by a new producer.
When to Use Passive Voice
Despite its maligned reputation, there are some instances in which it’s appropriate to use passive voice. There are a few examples of necessarily passive sentences, and there is no way to transition them into active voice sentences. These occur when the writer does not know or chooses not to include the identity of the “subject.” For example, one might write, “Her car was found” or “Their house was destroyed.” In both of these examples, the subject is missing. It’s impossible to rewrite the first sentence with “____ found her car” or the second with “____destroyed their house.” Without this information, the sentences have to be passive.
Additionally, passive voice is sometimes used when the subject is less important than the object. Then, with the object at the beginning of the sentences and the subject at the end, one ends up with a passive voice sentence that’s suited for the subject matter. For example, “His heart was broken last year by several women” or “Their lives were spared in the accident.” In these examples, “his heart” and “their lives” are the objects but, it makes more sense to feature them at the beginning of the sentences. “Several women” and “the accident” are less crucial.
There are a few other reasons why passive voice is used. They include:
- Creating an authoritative tone.
- Tactfully not naming the subject.
- Keeping the subject consistent.
When to Use Active Voice and Passive Voice?
When considering whether to write a sentence in passive voice or active voice, the general rule is to choose active first. The vast majority of sentences should be written in the active voice, especially if one is trying to write an informal article on a broadly interesting subject or is looking to receive the best possible grade on an essay.
As noted above, the active voice will make one’s writing more interesting to read. It’s more “in the moment” than passive voice is and therefore easier for the reader to engage with. Keeping readers’ attention on what one has written is the primary goal for all writers, no matter their subject matter.
All that being said, it’s not always easy to ensure that one’s sentences are in the active voice. The examples listed above are quite short and to the point. The subject, verb, and object are obvious. This isn’t always going to be the case. Therefore, it’s important to practice with these shorter sentences and then move on to longer ones. With this in mind, readers and writers should be able to pick out examples of passive voice quite easily and get rid of them when they need to.
How to Use Active Voice
As the preferred “voice” to use while writing, it’s important to understand how to change a sentence from passive voice into its active form. The above examples demonstrate the differences between the two kinds of sentences but now let’s take a look at how one might make the transition from passive to active.
1. Find the subject, verb, and object.
Consider the following example sentence: “The car was driven by her.” In this sentence, the subject is “her,” the verb is “was driven,” and the object is “the car.” As a passive sentence, these words are arranged as object + verb + subject.
2. Switch the position of the object and subject.
The next thing to do is to move the subject, “her,” to the front of the sentence and the object, “the car,” to the back.
3. Change the pronoun and verb tense.
Now that the sentence is rearranged, it’s time to change the tenses. “Her” becomes “she” and “was driven” becomes “drove.” Now, the active sentence reads, “She drove the car.”