Active vs. Passive Voice: What’s The Difference?

By Alan Reiner – December 18, 2023

In the world of grammar, understanding the difference between active and passive voice is vital to producing clear and concise writing. The active voice highlights the person or thing performing the action, placing emphasis on the subject. For example, “You wrote the report” conveys a direct and energetic tone with you as the subject.

On the other hand, the passive voice emphasizes the person or thing affected by the action, often diminishing the importance of the subject. For example, “The report was written by you” has a more passive and detached tone. Knowing when and how to employ each voice appropriately can help improve your writing and communication skills, making your message stand out.

Understanding Active and Passive Voice: Their Unique Roles

Exploring Active Voice

In the active voice, the subject of a sentence performs an action represented by the verb. The structure follows this pattern: Subject (doer) → Verb → Object (receiver). Active voice is commonly used in most non-scientific writing and contributes to clear, concise sentences.

When trying to emphasize the doer of the action in your writing, choose the active voice for improved clarity and a more engaging style. This is useful for maintaining a flow that keeps readers interested.

Diving into Passive Voice

On the other hand, the passive voice is characterized by the subject being acted upon or affected by the verb’s action. The sentence structure here includes an auxiliary verb, typically ‘be,’ followed by a past participle: it follows this pattern – Subject (receiver) → Verb → Object (doer). 

Passive voice can be useful when the doer of the action is not important or not known, as in crime reports or incidents where responsibility is concealed. Remember, passive voice is often preferred in scientific writing for its objective, detached tone.

Tips for sentence structure:

  • Use active voice to emphasize the subject and create clear, engaging sentences.
  • Use passive voice when emphasizing the receiver or maintaining objectivity in your writing.

Keep in mind that understanding and utilizing the unique roles of active and passive voice in English grammar will improve the effectiveness of your writing. Always aim to convey your ideas confidently, with a knowledgeable and neutral tone.

When to Use Active vs. Passive Voice

Active voice is often preferred in writing because it makes your sentences clearer and more engaging. In active voice, the subject performs the action, following the English grammar formula: Subject → Verb → Object. This structure helps keep your writing concise and easy to understand. Here are some tips to further strengthen your writing:

  1. Use active voice when:
  • You want to emphasize the action’s performer
  • Your writing is non-scientific or does not require objectivity
  • You aim to keep your sentences simple and direct
  1. Consider passive voice for:
  • Highlighting the object or action rather than the subject
  • Making your writing more formal or objective, such as in scientific reports
  • When the action’s performer is unknown or unnecessary to mention

Remember, mastering when to use active or passive voice is crucial for effectively conveying your message in various contexts. Therefore, always consider your writing’s purpose, tone, and audience when choosing between the two.

Transforming Passive Voice Into Active Voice

When transforming passive voice into active voice, identify the subject and action in the sentence. Place the subject as the performer of the action, then adjust the verb accordingly. Here are some tips to help you:

Identify the subject and action

Look for the person or thing performing the action and the action itself. In a passive sentence, the subject is usually acted upon.

Example: The book was read by Maria.

  • Subject: Maria
  • Action: read

Rearrange the sentence structure 

Place the subject before the action, making it the focus of the sentence. Follow it with the verb in its base form.

Example: Maria read the book.

By following these tips, your writing will become clearer and more concise. Using active voice in sentences helps streamline your English grammar and improves sentence structure. Incorporating active voice will enhance your writing skills, helping you to convey your ideas more effectively.

Examples of Active and Passive Voice in Action

In active voice, the subject performs the action, making your writing clear and engaging. For instance, “You write the report” has a subject (you) performing the action (writing the report). Passive voice, on the other hand, occurs when the subject is acted upon, which can make your sentences less direct. For example, “The report is written by you.”

To help you recognize and differentiate between the two, see the examples below:

Active VoicePassive Voice
You bake the cakeThe cake is baked by you
Teachers educate studentsStudents are educated by teachers
The director filmed the movieThe movie was filmed by the director

Remember these tips when working with active and passive voice:

  • Strive for clarity in your writing by primarily using active voice.
  • Consider passive voice when you want to emphasize the action or the object, or when the subject is unknown.
  • Maintaining consistent voice within a sentence and throughout your writing can improve English grammar and sentence structure.

Keep in mind that active and passive voices can be appropriate in different situations. Use the provided examples as a framework, but trust your judgment and understanding of your audience to make the best choice for your writing.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the key differences between active and passive voice?

In active voice, the subject performs the action, while in passive voice, the subject is acted upon by the object. Active voice generally uses fewer words and is more direct, whereas passive voice can be less concise and more wordy.

How is active voice used in technical writing?

In technical writing, active voice is often preferred because it provides clear, concise information. It helps the reader understand who is performing the action and makes the sentences easier to follow, enhancing the overall readability and comprehension of the technical content.

Can you provide examples of active voice in journalism?

Sure, here are two examples of active voice in journalism:

  1. The mayor announced new housing policies yesterday.
  2. Police arrested the suspect after a short chase.

These sentences are in active voice as the subjects—the mayor and police—are performing the actions.

What are the guidelines for using active vs passive voice in APA style?

The APA style generally encourages the use of active voice as it makes the writing more clear and engaging. However, passive voice is acceptable when you want to focus on the action itself or when the performer of the action is unknown or unimportant. For best results, strike a balance between the two and always prioritize clarity.

How does a sentence change when switching from active to passive voice?

When switching from active to passive voice, the subject and object change roles. The subject becomes the receiver of the action, while the object or agent performing the action is moved to a “by” phrase or omitted. For example, the active sentence “The cat chased the mouse” becomes “The mouse was chased by the cat” in passive voice.

What are the benefits of using active voice in scientific writing?

Using active voice in scientific writing makes the text more concise, clear, and engaging. It can help focus on the researcher or the actions taken, aiding in the overall understanding of the study. Additionally, it can improve readability, making it easier for readers to follow the logic and results of your research.