Active Vs. Passive Voice

What is it and Why Does it Matter?

Maybe you have heard people talk about using the active voice in writing, but you were never sure what that meant. Perhaps you have even been told that you use the passive voice too often, but you don't know how to revise your work to make it active. Well, you are not alone. A lot of people are confused about what exactly this means, even after consulting reference books and online sources.

One of the most confusing aspects of the active vs. passive voice dilemma is that writing in the passive voice is not necessarily wrong. In fact, most passive voice contractions are grammatically correct-and sometimes they are even the desirable construction for a sentence. So why even worry about it? Good question, and I have a good answer-and that is, if you write too often in the passive voice, your writing will be harder to follow. Active voice constructions are clearer, more concise, and easier to understand.

Parts of Speech: Subject, Verb and Object

To understand the difference between active and passive voice constructions, you need to brush up on your parts of speech. Specifically, you need to understand what a subject is, what a verb is, and what an object is.

Let's start with a subject. The subject of the sentence is simply what the sentence is about. Take a look at this sentence:

My cat eats cat food.

Clearly, the subject of this sentence is "my cat"-or even more concisely, just "cat."

And you probably know that a verb is (usually) an action taken by the subject. (I say usually because there are other kinds of verbs besides action verbs-more on that later.) In the case of the example sentence above, the verb is eats-as that is the action taken by the subject.

The object of a sentence is the recipient of the action taken by the subject. Ask yourself, what did the cat eat? The answer is cat food, so that is the object of the sentence above.

More Examples

In active voice constructions, the subject takes some action. The example sentence, therefore, is indeed active. There is a subject that takes an action upon an object. In passive voice constructions, on the other hand, the subject is acted upon. Clear as mud? Let me use the example sentence again.

Active construction: My cat eats cat food.

Passive construction: Cat food was eaten by my cat.

In the active example, the subject is "cat" and the cat takes some action. In the passive construction, the subject changes to "cat food." What action does the cat food take? Well, none. The cat food is acted upon. This makes the sentence passive.

At this point you may ask yourself, does it really matter if I say "My cat eats cat food" opposed to "Cat food was eaten by my cat?" Well, probably not. The real problem comes in when you begin to write sentences that are more complicated. And at this point, it might be helpful to hear more about verbs.

Another Kind of Verb: Forms of the Verb "Be"

When most people think of verbs, they think of action verbs. To really understand passive voice construction, you'll need to think about a different kind of verb-forms of the verb "be." The list of these verbs is short, but you'll see that they are a very important part of the English language.

Forms of the verb be include: am, is, are, was, were, being, been and were.

I tell my students to imagine replacing these word with the word "be" to understand why they are called "forms of be." For instance, if I said, "My friend is tall," I could replace "is" with "be" and come up with "My friend be tall." Of course, this is not grammatically correct, but you can see why the word "is" can be considered a form of "be."

Passive voice constructions depend heavily on forms of the verb be. Think about the example I used above: Cat food was eaten by my cat. Rather than using an action verb, I've used a form of the verb be in this sentence. Of course, there is nothing "wrong" with using forms of be-they are an essential part of speech in the English language. However, using these verbs too often in passive voice constructions-when you could use action verbs instead-can make you writing seem dull and hard to follow.

Even More Examples

I created the paragraphs below to show how your writing can improve when you change from passive to active voice. Imagine a make-over show for writing. This is the "before" picture:

A book that was written by the Dali Lama, a spiritual leader who strives for world peace, is called Ethics for the New Millennium. A philosophy of peace was developed by him and is described in this book. Consideration of others should be used by people when making decisions according to him.

Notice the number of times I used the form of the verb be, and how many passive voice constructions I've used in these few sentences. You may have noticed that the sentence structures are very clunky-this is because it's hard to figure out where to place all the relevant information when writing with a passive voice.

Now I'll rewrite the paragraph using active voice constructions:

The Dali Lama, a spiritual leader who strives for world peace, wrote a book called Ethics for the New Millennium. In this book, he describes the philosophy of peace he has developed. According to the Dali Lama's philosophy, people should be considerate of others when making decisions.

If you remember that I said at the start, passive voice constructions are not necessarily grammatically incorrect. I'm hoping that you will agree, however, that the second example, written in an active voice, is easier to follow.

If you find yourself struggling over how to put a sentence together, or wondering why something just doesn't "sound right," check to see if you are writing in a passive voice. Very often, restructuring your sentence into an active voice construction will make a big difference.

Published by Susan Montag

I'm a writer, teacher, business owner and a mom. (Yes, I really am that busy!) My book "Finding the Way: A Tao for Down-to-Earth People" was published by Nicolas-Hays Press in 2005. I have a Masters of Fine...  View profile