When it comes to writing, not much is set in stone. That also goes for the voice you use, that is, the relationship between the subject and the verb. While most writing rules recommend using active voice rather than passive voice, the choice largely depends on the situation and what you’re hoping to achieve with your message.
To help you choose the voice that fits best, this article explains active and passive voices, how to recognize each, and how to transform one to the other.
Defining passive and active voice
When to use active and passive voices
Converting sentences from passive to active voice
Defining passive and active voice
In the active voice, the subject of a sentence does something. Meanwhile, in the passive voice, something is being done to the subject.
In short, using active or passive sentences communicates the voice of the verb.
You likely transition between active voice and passive voice regularly as you speak, though you might not realize it. Let’s review some passive and active voice examples to help you better understand each.
The active voice follows a typical subject–verb–object order. These types of sentences provide clarity of thought, making them easier to read. You’ll also notice that active voice sentences rarely have prepositional phrases that can make the meaning harder to understand. The object of the sentence is the receiver of the action of the verb.
In contrast, in the passive voice, the subject of the sentence receives the action in the sentence. You’ll often find that passive sentences include the linking verb “to be” and a preposition like “by.” The verb “to be” is expressed in the present tense as I am, you are, he/she/it is, we are, and they are. The verb “to be” in a past, present, or future tense is then combined with the past participle of the action verb.
Here’s an example.
- The dog bit the woman. (Active voice)
- The woman was bitten by the dog. (Passive voice)
In the first sentence, the subject—the dog or the “doer”—directly completes the verb, and the object, the woman, receives that action.
We see reversed word order, inclusion of the “was” form of the verb “to be,” and the preposition “by” in the second sentence. The verb “was” is then followed by the past participle of the verb “to bite,” which is “bitten.”
Now the dog, which completes the action, is the object of the preposition. Since the words “woman” and “dog” switch positions, our attention focuses more on the woman and less on the dog.
Here’s another example.
- Contact the help desk with any questions. (Active voice)
- The help desk can be contacted for any questions. (Passive voice)
The central idea of both sentences is that people can contact the help desk. However, you can see clearly that the second sentence doesn’t articulate this idea nearly as directly as the first. It also gives the impression of carrying less direction. We also see the introduction of the preposition “for” and the verb “to be” once again.
Finally, consider the following sentences:
- We prepared the garden. (Active voice)
- The garden was prepared by us. (Passive voice)
Again, you can see the transition in the word that demands your attention—the pronoun “we” and what “we” did in the first sentence, vs. “the garden,” and what happened to it in the second. You also see the introduction of the past tense of the verb “to be” and the preposition “by.”
Now that you can more clearly see the differences between the two types of sentence voice, let’s explore when you should use an active sentence versus a passive sentence.
When to use active and passive voice
Typically, for effective writing you’ll want to use the active voice. The active voice creates simpler, more direct sentences. This type of writing draws readers in more easily and encourages them to engage with the text. However, that doesn’t mean you should always avoid passive voice sentences.
When to use active voice
The active voice helps you communicate your point clearly in certain situations. Here are a few times when you want to keep your voice active.
- You’re writing to explain or convince. The active voice does a great job of creating strong, clear sentences. This sentence structure can help you strengthen your arguments. “Pollution hurts the Earth,” for example, sounds stronger than “The earth is devastated by pollution.”
- You want to develop a strong call to action. You also want your calls to action to have a strong sense of purpose and inspire people to act. The forceful nature of the active voice can help encourage this action. Consider the difference between, “The offer was selected for you if you click here,” and “Click here. Your offer awaits.”
- You need to trim your word count. Notice in the previous examples that the active voice not only creates a more direct sentence, but also creates shorter sentences. If you want to trim your word count, transitioning to the active voice can help.
- You need to provide greater clarity. The active voice removes any doubt about who completes a particular action. If you need to make sure your meaning gets across, the active voice can help you accomplish this task. “The cat scratched the girl,” for example, removes any ambiguity about what happened and to whom it happened compared to “The girl was scratched.”
When to use passive voice
Let’s explore a few key instances where passive voice is a strong choice.
- You want to emphasize what happened to someone rather than who or what completed the action. If you look back at our first example about the dog biting the woman, you might prefer the passive voice if you’re recounting the terrible day the woman had. For example, let’s say you’re telling a story, “The woman missed her bus and had to walk home in the rain. She’d forgotten her lunch at home. Then, the dog bit her.” This version emphasizing the recipient of the action might fit better.
- You want to maintain some degree of vagueness regarding the identity of the subject of the sentence. For example, if you want to apologize for an error without casting blame on your teammate who was at fault, you might say, “A mistake was made.”
- Passive voice fits more naturally in certain types of writing, such as academic writing or scientific writing. When completing research papers or lab reports, many people put greater emphasis on what was done rather than the subject of a sentence. For example, you might say, “The chemicals were dissolved in water.” This casts the attention on this phase of the experiment.
- Passive voice can help communicate authority in certain situations. Signs generally indicate that “Employees are required to wash their hands” rather than “We require employees to wash their hands.” You see the first more often because it sounds more authoritative.
Generally speaking, if you don’t know whether you should use an active voice sentence or a passive voice sentence, try to use the active voice. In most situations, this fits best. However, if you find that your writing sounds awkward or moves the focus away from where you want the reader to pay attention, the passive voice might be best. Occasionally changing up sentence voice can make your writing more interesting too.
Converting sentences from passive to active voice
To convert your passive voice sentence into the active voice, follow these steps.
- Identify the subject of the sentence. Who or what completes the action in your writing? Underline the “doer.” Finding the doer after a preposition is a common passive voice construction, such as “The garden was prepared by us.” The pronoun “us” may become “we” as it moves from the object of the preposition to the subject of the sentence. Your subject also might be understood rather than stated explicitly, as in “Employees are required to wash their hands.” (The understood subject is “we/us.” “Employees are required ‘by us’ to wash their hands.”)
- Next, identify what the subject does. Is the subject washing, biting, or preparing? Bold your action word, also known as the verb.
- Move your subject to the beginning of the sentence and place your verb next to it. The rest of the sentence might require a little rearranging for it to make sense in this new format, but you should find the process straightforward once you have your subject and verb in place.
Let’s look at this process in action. Consider the passive-voice sentence:
“The article is selected by the newspaper’s editor.”
We can now underline our subject and bold the verb or action word.
We can rework the sentence by placing the subject at the beginning, followed by the verb, and filling in the rest of the sentence.
“The newspaper’s managing editor selects the articles.”
Apply your writing skills
Understanding when to use active versus passive voice can make a big difference in the quality of your writing and your ability to keep an audience’s attention. But just like a lot of things in English, the rules aren’t always clear. Many people can benefit from the assistance of a skilled copywriter.
Can you help clients find the right voice for their writing? If so, freelance copywriting may offer you the flexibility and freedom you desire while providing a rewarding career. If you’re looking for clients and projects, try Ndiwano.com. With thousands of independent copywriting jobs available and a user-friendly platform for communicating with clients, Ndiwano.com makes it easy for freelance writers like you to get noticed.
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