Active voice, passive voice — what’s the difference?
Remember back in school when you learnt about the different ‘voices’ in your writing?
No? Active voice and passive voice?
Well that’s okay. This blog post will explain all you need to know about active and passive voice, and when you should use each voice.
The difference between active and passive voice
In its simplest terms, active voice occurs when the subject of the sentence (or performer) is performing the action. For example:
Tom loves Jess. Tom (the subject) is performing the act of loving.
Passive voice is when the subject receives the action. For example:
Jessica is loved by Tom. Jessica (the subject) is receiving Tom’s love.
Using the active voice
It is generally recommended to use active voice when writing. Active voice is clearer and more succinct. It clearly identifies the action and who or what is performing the action. It is stronger, and enables us to communicate our message more effectively. It also can be used to point the reader in a particular direction
Active voice has a kind of energy that passive voice lacks. It is the perfect choice in business writing — particularly when using a ‘call to action’ (e.g. ‘Call us now!’). And it is usually the choice for creative writing.
Using passive voice
While passive voice is often wordier than active voice, it is useful to use it in certain situations. For example, health writing often use the passive voice, because the ‘performer’ is less important than the action.
e.g. Carbohydrates are found in fruits and vegetables.
While using active voice in scientific writing is sometimes preferable, passive voice is useful because it is considered inappropriate for scientists to insert themselves into the paper.
e.g. The subjects were tested instead of We tested the subjects.
Passive voice is also used when the performer is unknown, irrelevant or obvious.
e.g. Every year, thousands of people are diagnosed with cancer.
It is also useful when hedging around a topic. You will notice that police officers, managers and politicians often use passive voice when they don’t want to, or are unable to identify the person who has performed the action.
e.g. Mistakes were made and the procedures were misinterpreted.
How to recognise passive voice
As we have seen, using passive voice is not wrong. However, active voice is preferable in most cases. To determine if your writing is passive, look out for the following tell-tale words:
- has been
- have been
- will be
If any of these words appear, then you have written a passive sentence.
Changing from passive to active
Active sentences follow a logical order:
i.e. doer of action (performer) + action + receiver of action
To change a passive sentence into an active one, simply:
- begin the sentence with the doer of the action
- make the verb active
- put the receiver of the action after the active verb
The novel The Power of One was written by Bryce Courtenay (passive)
Bryce Courtenay wrote The Power of One.
Remember, passive voice has its place in writing too and in some instances if preferable. The type of voice you use in your writing will depend upon what you’re writing, who the audience is, and what the aim of your communication is.
But if you want your message to be snappy and clearly understood, always choose an active voice.
If you need help deciphering active and passive sentences, or just don’t want the bother of doing it at all, please contact me.