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Active vs Passive Voice | Definitions & Examples

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White text over orange background reads “Active voice vs passive voice.”
Learning the difference between active voice and passive voice can help improve your writing. 

In the active voice, the subject of the sentence carries out the action (e.g., “I lent him a pencil”). In the passive voice, the subject receives the action (e.g., “A pencil was lent to him by me”).

Active and passive are grammatical voices that use certain verb forms to indicate whether the subject is performing or receiving the action. 

For instance, in the examples above, the subject in the active voice sentence, “I,” performs the action “lent.” The passive voice example conveys the same message, but in a more complicated way—the pencil becomes the subject receiving the action of the verb. 

Grammar authorities and style guides typically recommend using the active voice, as it is clearer and more straightforward. Sentences that use the passive voice can sound more clunky and long-winded. However, there are times when using the passive voice is more suitable, like when the person performing an action is unknown or unimportant. 

What is active voice?

The term active voice refers to a sentence construction in which the subject performs the action of the verb.

Active voice: The cat ate the snack that fell on the floor.

In the sentence above, “the cat” is the subject that performs the action, which is to eat the snack that fell on the floor. 

The active voice is often preferred over the passive voice because it is clearer and more direct. 

The passive-voice equivalent of the sentence above is longer and more complex. 

Passive voice: The snack that fell on the floor was eaten by the cat.

Active voice examples

The formula for writing in the active voice is: [subject] + [verb] + [object]. The subject performs the verb, which describes the action or state of being, and the object is the noun receiving the action. Remember, intransitive verbs do not require an object (e.g., “Grace danced”), whereas transitive verbs do (e.g., “Michelle needed a break”).

Active voice examples

My assistant shredded the confidential documents.

Laurie excused her daughter from the dinner table.

I emptied the dishwasher last night after dinner.

The car accelerated when I pressed down on the pedal.

The bike rusted after being outside for too long.
Visual shows the formula of an active voice sentence with the example “Tony created a masterpiece.”
Active voice sentences typically follow the formula shown above.

What is passive voice?

Passive voice refers to sentence construction that uses verb forms that indicate the subject receives the action of the verb.

Passive voice: The weeds were removed by the gardener.

In the sentence above, “the weeds” is the subject that receives the action, which was to be removed by the gardener.

The active voice typically produces clearer and more straightforward sentences.

Active voice: The gardener removed the weeds.

Passive voice examples

Passive voice sentences typically require a conjugated form of the verb “to be” followed by the past participle form of the main action verb.

Some passive voice sentences also include the noun that is performing the action of the main verb, which is known as the “agent” and is introduced by the preposition “by.” For example, in “The trees were planted yesterday by Shaun,” “the trees” is the subject, “were” is the auxiliary verb, “planted” is the main verb, and “Shaun” is the agent.

In short, the formula for writing a passive voice sentence that includes an agent is: [subject] + [form of “to be”] + [past participle of the main verb] + [by + agent].

Passive voice examples

The students were summoned to the principal’s office.

Many concert tickets were bought second-hand.

The application will be submitted by me at the end of the week.

A zookeeper was injured by one of the animals.

The fire was extinguished by the firefighters.
Visual shows the formula of a passive voice sentence with the example “A masterpiece was created by Tony.”
Passive voice sentences typically follow the formula shown above.

When to use passive voice

Passive-voice sentences can be wordy and confusing, so most style guides recommend using the active voice instead. However, there are certain contexts in which using the passive voice is preferred. 

Someone who wants to emphasize the action or the recipient of the action would use the passive voice. Or, if the performer of the action is unknown or unimportant, then it would make more sense to use the passive voice.

News reporting often uses the passive voice. For example, a news reporter may say, “The house was broken into by burglars” to emphasize the action as opposed to who performed the action. The passive voice can be found in scientific writing, formal reports, and other contexts in which the emphasis lies on the action or the recipient of the action, and not the doer. Creative writers sometimes use the passive voice in their writing for stylistic purposes.

How to fix passive voice

If your writing contains many instances of “to be” plus past participle verb forms, that may be a sign that it contains too much passive voice. 

To fix a passive voice sentence, identify the subject, verb, object, and agent. Then, rewrite the sentence so that the agent becomes the subject performing the verb. Once the sentence is rewritten, ensure that it is coherent and conveys the original message.

Passive voice: The essay was written by Tatiana.
Active voice: Tatiana wrote the essay.

Active and passive voice examples

Comparing active and passive voice sentences side by side can help you understand that active voice sentences are more streamlined and are therefore typically simpler to read.

Active voice examples

Passive voice examples

My sister prepared dinner. Dinner was prepared by my sister.
The students completed the art project. The art project was completed by the students.
My favorite basketball team won the championship two years in a row. The championship was won by my favorite basketball team two years in a row.
The dog ate the plants. The plants were eaten by the dog.
Later this year, the company will launch a new product. A new product will be launched by the company later this year.

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