Stronger Writing with the Active Voice

In the active voice, the subject of the sentence performs an action.  The active voice is usually direct, simple, and straightforward.  In the passive voice, the action is performed by the subject.  The sentence becomes less direct and less simple.

  • Active:     We ate the pizza.
  • Passive:    The pizza was eaten by us.
  • Active:    The dog is chasing the cat.
  • Passive:    The cat is being chased by the dog.

The active voice is usually a better choice.  Sentences in the active voice tend to be stronger and more to the point.  "We won a million dollars" sounds much better than "a million dollars was won by us."

Sometimes the active voice is the only choice.  Either the verb makes no sense in the passive voice, or the sentence becomes awkward and clumsy.

  • Active:    I was sleeping.
  • Passive:    Sleeping was done by me.
  • Active:    Joe is reading.
  • Passive:    Reading is being done by Joe.

Identifying the Passive Voice

A sentence in the passive voice will almost always use some form of the verb "to be."  However, not every sentence using "to be" is passive.  "I am walking" is in the active voice, even though it contains "am," which is a form of "to be."

If a sentence does not contain any form of "to be," the sentence is almost certainly in the active voice.

When to Use the Passive Voice

There are a few situations when you will want to use the passive voice.  For example, use the passive voice when you don't know who performed an action:

  • My car was dented.
  • Gold was discovered in California.

Use the passive voice when you want to emphasize the action or the object, but you don't care who did it:

  • The baby was delivered yesterday afternoon.
  • A law was passed banning pesticide use.

Use the passive voice when you want to shift the focus away from the actor and focus on the action or the object:

  • Alternating-current power systems were invented by Nikola Tesla.
  • The thief was arrested on Monday by local police.

Use the passive voice if you don't want to say who performed an action:

  • Mistakes were made.
  • Lies were told.
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