active vs. passive

Want an easy way to make your sentences stronger and livelier? Write in active voice instead of in passive voice.

In active voice, the person or thing that performs the main action of the sentence is the subject of the sentence. For example, “Bob wrote the report” is written in active voice because the person (i.e., “Bob”) who performed the main action of the sentence (i.e., “wrote”) is also the subject of the sentence.

In passive voice, the subject of the sentence is the person or thing that is acted on or affected by the main action of the sentence. For example, “The report was written by Bob” is written in passive voice because the subject of the sentence (i.e., “the report”) is the thing being acted on by the main action in the sentence (i.e., “written”).

Note that in both cases, “Bob” is the person who performs the main action of the sentence. However, when the sentence is written in active voice, Bob is the subject of the sentence, but when the sentence is written in passive voice, Bob isn’t the subject.

You can remember the difference between active and passive voice by remembering that a sentence is in active voice when the subject of the sentence is actively doing something (e.g., writing). A sentence is in passive voice when the subject is passively being acted on (e.g., being written).

Some people think that writing is passive voice is better than writing in active voice because passive voice seems more scientific and formal. After all, many scientific articles are written in passive voice (e.g., “Participants were given 200 mg of the medication each week”).

In reality, though, sentences written in active voice are usually clearer and easier to understand than sentences written in passive voice are. Here are two key reasons why:

1. Active voice sentences are typically shorter than their passive voice equivalents because passive voice sentences contain extra words (e.g., some form of “was” plus “by”). Because shorter sentences are generally easier to understand than longer ones, active sentences tend to be easier to understand than passive sentences.

2. In active voice sentences, it’s usually easy to identify the person or thing that performs the main action in a sentence. In a passive voice sentence, however, it’s easy to write the sentence in a way that cuts this person or thing out of the sentence. Look at these examples:

  • Example A. “Mistakes were made in incorporating the data into the report.” (passive voice)
  • Example B. “The technical writer made mistakes in incorporating the data into the report.” (active voice)

In Example A, it isn’t clear who made the mistakes. It could have been the marketing analyst, the statistician, the technical writer, or the entire project team. We simply don’t know who it was because the sentence doesn’t tell us. It’s common for people and organizations to write sentences like this when they want to avoid taking responsibility for an action or assigning blame.

In comparison, in Example B, we know that it was the technical writer who made the mistakes. In other words, Example B is written in a way that makes it easy to understand who the key player is in the sentence and what the sentence means.

Although it may not always be important for your reader to know who performed an action in a sentence, having this information can help readers interpret surrounding sentences or paragraphs. Furthermore, if you’re submitting a grant proposal that outlines work that will be performed by multiple people on a team, writing sentences that remove the main actors from a sentence may make it challenging for the reader to figure out who will be responsible for carrying out each task.

Note that writing in passive voice isn’t always a bad thing, When the subject of your sentence isn’t important and you want to focus on the recipient of an action (e.g., “The ducks were released back into the wild”), it may be best to leave your sentence in passive voice. In most cases, though, changing sentences from passive to active voice can make them easier to understand.

Want a quick way to identify sentences in passive voice? Call in the zombies! If your sentence makes sense when you place “by zombies” after the main verb (e.g., “The interviews were conducted [by zombies] in October.”), it’s probably in passive voice.

In sum, you can write a sentence in one of two grammatical voices: active voice and passive voice. In most cases, writing in active voice instead of passive voice will make your sentences clearer and easier to understand. It’ll also make them flow better.

The next time that you’re writing a report, blog post, or admissions essay, review your text for sentences written in passive voice. If you find any, rewrite them so that the person or thing that performs the main action in each sentence is the subject of the sentence.

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Active voice versus passive voice
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