Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Active vs. Passive Voice by Katie Hines

What Makes A Sentence?

Basic, traditional sentence structure follows what is known as the SVO pattern. “S” refers to a subject, or something performing an action; “V” refers to a verb, which is the action; and, “O” refers to the object, or something receiving the action. Please note that not all sentences have an “object.”

What is the Passive Voice?

Passive voice is the opposite of active voice, and results from the overuse of the “be” verbs: am, is, was, were, be, being and been.

The passive voice is often found in sentences that begin with “there is,” “there are,” “it is” and “they are.”

Examples of passive voice:

  • There were a great number of dead birds on the ground.

  • There were many cows behind the fence.

  • There are four to eight members in each of our critique groups.

What is the Active Voice?

The active voice uses strong action verbs, such as toss, run, jump, fly, etc.

Using the active voice allows the reader to visualize what the writer is describing or saying.

The following are examples of the active voice. Note how the above sentences are changed from passive to active voice:

  • Dead birds littered the ground.

  • Cows stood behind the fence.

  • Our critique groups host four to eight members.

When to Use the Passive Voice

Although the use of the passive voice is often linked to weak sentences, there is a place where the use of it shines.

The passive voice is used very effectively in scientific or technical writing, where it emphasizes the process or principle being described, instead of the person performing the action.

For example, use of the passive voice is effective in the following sentence:

Open drawer two in the printer to add standard-sized paper.

However, in most fiction, the use of the passive voice slows down writing and makes it wordy.

Nancy Lamb, children’s author of The Writer’s Guide to Crafting Stories for Children, says on p. 205 of that same book:

“The difference between adequate prose and good prose is the difference between the passive and active voice. Make certain that active verbs drive your prose.”

Be especially careful not to mix active and passive voice in the same sentence!

When to Use the Active Voice

Use of the active voice brings an event into immediacy for the reader, into the present, and makes them connect more strongly with what’s being written.

For those who are grammatically challenged, think of “active” in connection with the active voice, for the active voice brings the action from the past (from having already happened) into the present.

The active voice “does it now.”

Using the active voice, with its attending action verbs, eliminates wordiness and makes what is written more interesting to read.


  1. Thanks, Katie.

    Another helpful hint: In active voice, the subject does the acting. Active voice, the bat hit the ball; passive, the ball was hit.

  2. This commenter was very impressed by the helpful illustration of active versus passive voice.

  3. Hi, Katie. Thanks for sharing such great examples of active vs. passive voice.


  4. Hey, guys! So glad it (hopefully) made things clearer. I'm not always on top of things like this, so being able to see so clearly the difference between the active and passive voice is great, and I know it has made a definite different in my writing.