Passive-v-Active Voice

I have the habit of writing in the passive voice, a hangover from my school days when the difference between the two was never mentioned. I must consciously think of writing in the active voice all of the time and it is not easy. Indeed many writers, new and experienced find writing in the active voice tiring, not least as it requires mental effort from most to keep writing with it.

So what is the difference between an Active Voice and the Passive Voice?

A grammatical definition will go something like this:

“The active voice uses the subject of a sentence to act upon something, whereas the passive voice has the subject itself acted upon.”

In plain English, the subject of a sentence is doing something to something else so;

“ERH wrote this using his computer.”

The subject is ERH and he is writing, in other words ERH is doing something and this makes it the active voice.

Compare this sentence with;

“This was written on a computer by ERH.”

This is written in the passive voice where ERH is still the subject but instead of ERH “doing something” he has “something done” by him – the verb “written” is acting upon the subject “ERH”.

The active voice is more direct and conveys energy far better than the passive voice. As a writing style it tends to be preferred by readers (and critics) as it flows more smoothly compared to the passive voice and is more economical in terms of words required to convey your meaning.

Another way to view the active/passive voices is to consider the action order:

ACTIVE VOICE: Doer of Action –>Action–>Receiver of Action

PASSIVE VOICE: Receiver of Action–>Action–>Doer of Action

Examples:

ACTIVE VOICE: At each competition, the gymnasts performed at least one exercise on the floor.

(gymnasts = doer of action;performed = action; exercise = receiver of action)

PASSIVE VOICE: At each competition, the floor was used to perform at least one exercise by the gymnasts.

Readers and writing stylists preference for the active voice does not mean you must slavishly comply with the stricture of using the active voice only when writing. There are times when the passive voice provides advantages over the active voice. For instance, imagine you wish to convey greater effect from what the sentence itself has to say rather than focus on the “doer” of the action eg. “The world record for the mile was broken today.” At other times it will not be clear who the “doer” of the action is or it is not necessary to know eg. “The audit has been completed.” While at other times, you may wish to use the passive voice simply because it gives some variety to your writing.

If you would like to learn more you can check out these resources:

Towson University

Purdue University