Learn How to Use Active and Passive Voice in Your Writing

No matter what (some) English teachers like to say, there is no clear winner when it comes to active and passive voice. Both are useful, and choosing the right voice for your project depends on what you’re trying to achieve. Instead of determining which is “right” or “wrong,” let’s look at which moments are most appropriate for each style of writing.

Active and Passive Voice Defined

Before we go any further, let’s define our terms. When we say passive voice, we mean writing in which the subject receives the action. Passive voice is created by using a form of the verb “to be” with a past participle (a verb that usually ends in -ed).

When we say active voice, we mean writing in which the subject performs the action. Let’s look at an example:

Passive Voice: The dolphin was scared by the ghost lobster.

Active Voice: The ghost lobster scared the dolphin.

Passive voice image shows a dolphin yelling, "Ah! A ghost!" next to a white ghost lobster that responds, "No, I'm a ghost lobster, not a ghost."

Active voice image shows a ghost lobster saying, "Boo!" as the dolphin swims away, screaming, "Ahhh!"

Notice how the subject moves from the end of the sentence in the passive voice example to the front of the sentence in the active voice example. This is because active voice puts the subject front and center!

When is active voice better?

For some people, the answer to this question is always. After all, in The Elements of Style by Strunk and White—arguably the most famous book about writing—the fourteenth rule is “Use the active voice” (34). The reason that Messrs. Strunk and White state this as a rule instead of a mere guideline is that, generally speaking, active voice is stronger than passive voice.

Why is this the case? Let’s look at an example from The Elements of Style for some clarity:

Passive Voice: At dawn the crowing of the rooster could be heard.

Active Voice: The rooster’s crow came with dawn.

Notice how the active sentence is shorter and more to the point. It just feels stronger. We are not bogged down in phrases like “could be heard.” We find, in fact, that we don’t even need this phrase, as we can infer that everyone in the vicinity could hear the crow.  Thus, active voice cuts through the clutter of passive voice.

Even in the previous example with the dolphin in the ghost lobster, we can see that the active voice sentence is shorter and has more energy than its passive counterpart.

So when should you use active voice? If you are writing a paper for an English class, a cover letter for a job, or any document where you want to convey strength and authority on a subject, active voice will help you achieve your goals.

When is passive voice better?

If active voice is stronger than passive voice, surely there is no time that passive voice is better, right? Wrong! The passive voice comes in handy when you don’t want to call attention to the subject, or when you’re not sure who or what the subject is.

For Example: Clara’s delicious sandwich was stolen.

Perhaps you don’t want to reveal that you know who stole the sandwich, or maybe you don’t know who stole it. In either case, the passive voice allows you to describe what you do know: Clara’s sandwich is no longer in the refrigerator because someone absconded with it.

So when should you use the passive voice? Use it when you are trying to direct your reader’s attention away from the subject who performed the action and toward the action itself.

We see examples of this in police reports when the perpetrator is unknown. 

For Example: The window was broken.

We also see examples of this in scientific reports because the goal is to focus on the process, not the person who completed it.

For Example: The frog was dissected.

Active and Passive Voice Summarized

At the end of the day, you’ll have to use your judgment to determine which voice is best. However, here are the basic guidelines to help you remember which to use:

  • Use the active voice when you want to convey strength in your writing. (e.g. essays, articles, and cover letters)
  • Use the passive voice when you want your reader to focus on the action instead of the subject who performed it. (e.g. crime and science reports)

Want more examples of passive and active voice? Need to know why the ghost lobster scared the dolphin in the first place? Check out this animated video on active and passive voice!

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