Active and passive voices both have their merits, but active voice is often the preferred style because of its clear and concise sentence structure. Understanding the nuanced differences between active and passive voice can help you to become a better writer and speaker.
Active VS. Passive Voice: Understanding The Differences
For many writers, especially young writers, one of the most difficult things to do is master the differences between active and passive voice. Beyond simple confusion over which one is which, it's hard for writers of all ages to distinguish when they should use active vs. passive voice in their work.
Many of us were taught in school that passive voice is the weaker of the two, but it is sometimes necessary or better for the flow of the piece. There are reasons you may want to choose one voice over the other, and the reasons are plentiful, so it's important to understand the subtle differences between the two styles.
Why Is Voice Important?
In writing, the voice you use can help a reader to determine quite a bit about you as the author. For instance, in scientific writing or research, utilizing passive voice may help to create objectivity in your work.
Using passive voice may also help to create mystery in fiction writing, where using active voice may put the focus on an unknown subject that the author doesn't want to emphasize at that time.
The same types of things can be true for the use of active voice. Active voice is a clear and focused style that emphasizes the agent or subject of a sentence. Journalists may use active voice to get readers to resonate with the agent in question. Marketing personnel often employ similar tactics in ad campaigns.
The voice that you choose to use in your writing or your speech will ultimately affect the way that the reader or listener interprets it. Choosing the correct voice helps to ensure that your intentions are clear and easy to understand, while also giving your work the proper tone.
In the most basic terms, active voice emphasizes the subject that is performing an action, where passive voice emphasizes the recipient of that action. Let's look at a couple of examples to help you understand what we mean.
Active Voice Sentences
Passive Voice Sentences
As you can see in the sentences above, using active voice accentuated who was doing what, where passive voice suggested that objects were having things done to them, while setting the subjects up to be left out of the sentence entirely, if that’s what the author had chosen to do.
The above sentences are quite basic in format, so it’s easy to see that the preferable style is active voice. However, in real writing, there are often when passive voice makes just as much or more sense as the active style. Let’s look at some examples of more complex sentences below where passive voice is appropriate.
In both of these sentences the structure is passive, but since the individual speaking them likely doesn’t know who stole the shoes or who cleaned the dishes, the sentences are an acceptable use of passive voice.
To convert either of these sentences to active voice, you could change them to read as either “Someone stole my shoes from my locker,” or “Someone cleaned the dishes by the time I got home.”
Both versions of these sentences make sense, but in the first sentence, the speaker likely wants the focus on what happened, not the fact that he or she doesn’t know who did it. The same may be true for the second sentence; what is more important than whom in both of these cases.
Active And Passive Voice In Different Forms Of Writing
As a generalization, active voice tends to keep things clean and clear for readers, where passive voice can muddy the waters and create overly wordy sentences. The use of passive voice can also result in awkward sentences that are difficult to read and comprehend.
Despite its reputation as weak and clunky, though, avoiding passive voice can be more difficult depending on the type of writing you are doing. For instance, in research, some journals prefer that you avoid using the first person, so you cannot use a sentence like “We used Google sheets to survey students for this project.”
You would instead need to say, “Google sheets were used to survey the students for this project.” Technically, the latter sentence is written in passive voice, but it is more acceptable than the first regarding the journal’s style preferences. As we said earlier, passive voice creates objectivity in this style of writing.
In fact, many researchers find themselves trying to balance the use of active voice with the formality of avoiding first-person speech in their writing. This is not always the case, and it is becoming more commonly accepted to write in the first person in scientific journals, but it is still an issue in the discipline quite often.
Passive Voice In Informal Writing
In other forms of writing such as blogs or website content, it’s less acceptable to write in passive voice. In these writing scenarios, you will almost always use the first or second person, so it’s easy to use active voice a majority of the time. However, there are still occasions when passive voice makes more sense, as we discussed earlier.
To put it simply, we use passive voice when we want to emphasize the thing or the person that is affected by an action, rather than the thing or person completing the action. This is quite common in the English language, especially in casual, conversations or conversational writing like blog posts.
Here is an example: “She had a feeling she was being followed.”
In the sentence above the speaker wants to accentuate that the subject was being followed, but not necessarily presume that it was an individual person following her. This leaves the sentence open to interpretation until the follower is ultimately revealed, a tactic mystery writers often use to add suspense to their stories.
Let’s try an example that you may be more likely to find in a blog post: “I was told that I would need emergency surgery.”
In this example, the writer doesn’t care to tell us who told her that she would need emergency surgery, and that’s perfectly acceptable. She may not have even known the title of the person who told her. All she wants to convey to the reader is that she would need the surgery, so this sentence makes sense in the passive voice.
Why Does Everyone Love Active Voice So Much?
Active voice is the favorite among English teachers and professional writers, that’s for certain, but why is it so important to them when we’ve seen that passive voice can work just as well in some circumstances? The simple answer is that active voice follows the logical flow of an action from subject to object.
Simply put, active voice lets a reader or listener know who did it to whom and with what. It’s like playing a game of Clue. The game asks you to answer the question “who did it?” in active voice, i.e., Ms. Scarlett with the rope in the library. In many cases it is necessary, or at least nice, to know the subject, action, and object in that order to create clarity, especially in potentially complex sentences.
Active voice does create clarity, and it does allow for greater understanding in general. It is important to remember that in the English language we are constantly up against rules and regulations that change, though, and get so wrapped up in using active voice that we forget when passive voice is a good thing.
Active vs. passive voice can be hard to master for both mature writers and those who haven’t been writing for long. Our tendency to speak in both forms in casual conversation doesn’t help either. Nor does the fact that passive voice is preferable in some instances, despite active voice’s overall popularity.
Mastering the art of using the proper voice at the proper time is what ultimately makes an excellent writer or speaker. When you can utilize passive voice to create objectivity or mystery when you’d like, but utilize active voice to create a connection between the subject and the reader, you are close to mastering the English language.
We hope that you’ve taken away enough information from this article to understand the nuanced benefits of both active and passive voice in different forms of writing, or at different times within your writing. We also hope that you understand how understanding active vs. passive voice in writing translates to better speaking.
Although these concepts may seem basic, passive voice is something that many people struggle to pick out in their own sentences, so it’s something worth revisiting every now and again. Even the best writers and speakers need refreshers on the basics to maintain their excellent diction.