Active Voice vs. Passive Voice: When to Choose Each?

Active voice stresses the doer of action; passive voice highlights the recipient. Use active for clarity, but passive when the doer is unknown or unimportant. Knowing when to use each improves writing.

By:   Ryan Holiday, Published on: 2024-01-13, Last Updated: 13-01-24

Reviewed by: Jeff Goins

Table of Contents

Introduction 

Sometimes, when we talk or write, we can use different ways to say things. Imagine you say, 'I like cake.' That's a simple way to express yourself. This is called active voice. Now, let's change it a bit. Instead of saying, 'I like cake,' you might say, 'Cake is liked by me.' This second way is called the passive voice. It's a bit longer and may feel a bit awkward.

Using either the simple or passive way depends on what you're talking or writing about. It's like choosing the right tool for the job. Let's explore when and why we use each one to be good at expressing ourselves.

Differences Between Active and Passive Voice

In the active voice, the subject is doing something:

A chef bakes delicious cookies.

Here, the subject, the chef, is performing the action, bake, on the object of the action, cookies. It's a clear and simple example of the active voice.

Now, let's switch to the passive voice. In this case, the focus is on the object of the action, and the subject becomes passive:

Delicious cookies are being baked by the chef.

Here, the cookies are now the focus, and the subject (chef) is being acted upon by the verb. Both active and passive voices have their uses in writing. News anchors, for example, often sound detached when reporting stories, and they use the passive voice. On the other hand, authors of opinion pieces sound confident because they usually write in the active voice.

While teachers often advise students to avoid the passive voice, it has its applications. We'll explore those later. For now, let's learn how to recognize the active and passive voices in your writing and in the writing of others.

Recognition of the Active Voice

In the active voice, the person or thing doing the action is the focus. Let's look at two simple examples:

Ben watches the stars.

They enjoy music.

When you arrange your sentence so that the subject does the action, you're using the active voice. The active voice is straightforward and clear. Use it when you want readers to pay attention to who or what is doing the action, rather than what the action is directed towards.

To add more clarity to your sentences, there are various tools that will reword your sentences with just a single click.

Recognition of the Passive Voice

In the passive voice, we talk about the target of the action, and the verb affects the subject. To say it passively, the subject experiences the action of the verb. Every passive voice sentence has two parts:

A form of "to be"

The main verb's past participle

Let's see new examples, now written passively:

  • Ice cream is enjoyed by Tim.
  • Songs are listened to by Maria.

Now, the things receiving the action, which are also the direct objects, become the main focus. These sentences include a form of "to be" (like "is") and the main verb's past participle (such as "enjoyed" and "listened"). Passive voice sentences are often longer because they need extra words like prepositions.

For example: 

  • Stories are told by grandparents during bedtime.

However, passive sentences don't always need a preposition. Check out these examples:

  • The puzzle was solved.
  • New inventions are always admired.
  • The forest is home to many animals.

The passive voice has a more subtle tone than the active voice. Sometimes, this tone is necessary, like in scientific reports, where the focus should be on the action or its target rather than who or what is doing the action.

Usage of the Active and Passive Voice

Some people say that using passive voice in writing is not good. But it's not as simple as that. For most of your writing, like emails, blog posts, and many essays, it's better to use active voice. It helps you express your ideas, themes, and facts more effectively.

However, there are times when a passive voice is necessary. Consider news reports on crimes and incidents:

Last night, a bike was stolen from the garage.

Money was taken from the donation box.

In these reports, passive voice is used to highlight the action that occurred, not the person who did it. This is often because the person responsible is unknown or hasn't been proven guilty yet.

There are other types of writing where the focus is on the action itself, not the person doing it. This includes scientific and, sometimes, historical reports. They use passive voice to keep the reader's attention on what happened. 

Here are a couple of new examples:

  • The experiment was conducted to test the hypothesis.
  • The ancient artifact was discovered during an archaeological dig.

In both sentences, the person doing the action isn't mentioned. That's because it's either understood or not important. In the first example, the scientist is the one conducting the experiment. In the second, the people doing the archaeological dig don't care what the sentence is saying.

Additionally, checking for grammar mistakes or sentence errors will make you aware of what your sentences are about and where you should add correctness.

How to Change Passive Voice into Active Voice

Changing a passive sentence to an active one is pretty straightforward. In a passive sentence, the subject is the receiver of the action, while in an active sentence, the subject is the doer of the action.

Here's an example:

Passive: The cake was baked by Mary.

Active: Mary baked the cake.

See what I did there? In the passive sentence, "The cake" is the subject, and it's just sitting there being baked by Mary. In the active sentence, I made Mary the subject, and she's now the one doing the baking.

So, just identify who or what is doing the action, and make that the subject of your active sentence. Easy peasy

After having the full clarity of making active into passive and passive into active, or vice versa, you should check the readability of your sentences, which will help you create more engaging and reader friendly text.

Conclusion

Understanding the distinction between active and passive voice is crucial for effective communication. While the active voice is direct and emphasizes the doer of the action, the passive voice often shifts focus to the receiver of the action. Both have their merits in different contexts, and mastering their use allows for nuanced and engaging writing. Remember, like any tool, choosing between active and passive voice depends on the specific requirements of your message or narrative.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why does active or passive voice matter in writing?

Your choice impacts clarity and emphasis. Active voice is direct and engaging, while passive voice suits certain contexts, emphasizing the action over the doer.

Are there preferred situations for using passive voice?

Yes, in scientific or historical reports and news where the action, not the doer, is crucial.

Is passive voice always discouraged in writing?

No, in formal reports or specific journalistic contexts, it's necessary for conveying information appropriately.

How can I recognize active or passive voice in a sentence?

Identify the cause of the action. If the subject actively performs the action, it's an active voice; if it's acted upon, it's a passive voice.

Can you give more examples of changing passive voice to active voice?

Certainly! "The team edited the document" transforms the passive ". The document was edited by the team," emphasizing the doer for clarity.