Active Voice vs Passive Voice

If you are brave enough to let someone edit your work, be it an academic paper or the third chapter of your novel-in-progress, there’s a good chance that you’ve seen this scribbled out in bold red pen:

Use active voice here.

Well, wouldn’t it be helpful if they explained? Since your editor can’t hyperlink an example on traditional paper, you’re now searching the Internet to figure out the difference between active voice and passive voice.

Your search ends here.

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What is Active Voice?

Active voice is when the subject of a sentence performs the action of the verb. Like this:

Jack stole money from my purse. 

The cat chased the dog around the house. 

Our local farmers grew the best produce in the state.

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Sentences like these follow the basic sentence structure: Subject, verb, object.

Jack (the subject) performs the action of stealing (the verb) the money (the object).

The cat (the subject) performs the action of chasing (the verb) the dog (the object).

The farmers (the subject) perform the action of growing (the verb) the produce (the object).

Notice how sentences using active voice assert directness as well as a strong, clear tone.

Remember this: The subject takes on the action of the sentence. Action, action, action!

What is Passive Voice?

Now let’s look at the reversal. Passive voice is when the subject is acted on by the verb. I’ll turn our active voice examples into passive voice:

The money from my purse was stolen by Jack. 

The dog was chased around the house by the cat. 

The best produce in the state was grown by our local farmers.

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Sentences using passive voice follow a structure like this: Object, to be + verb’s past participle, preposition, subject.

The money (the object) was stolen (was = past tense of “to be” + past participle of “steal”) by (preposition to connect verb with subject) Jack (the subject).

The dog (the object) was chased (was = past tense of “to be” + past participle of “chase”) by (preposition to connect verb with subject) the cat (the subject).

The produce (the object) was grown (was = past tense of “to be” + past participle of “grow”) by (preposition to connect verb with subject) the farmers (the subject).

Remember this: The object leads the sentence but does not take the action.

Should I Use Active Voice or Passive Voice?

When you want to assert your authority in your writing, active voice is the way to go. Academic thesis, storytelling, copywriting, business reports—active voice encourages your reader to trust you as the writer faster.

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Passive voice is often misused in writing because it sounds fancier. However, it conveys the opposite tone of hesitancy and restraint.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t moments when passive voice can resonate well in your work.

Let’s revisit this example: The cat chased the dog around the house.

What if the dog was the focus of your story? Or what if you wanted to build the anticipation of who was chasing the dog to the sentence’s conclusive word?

That’s when passive voice comes in handy: The dog was chased around the house by the cat.

TL;DR: When in doubt, active voice is usually the best choice for your writing.

Do you prefer to write in active voice or passive voice? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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