Using the Active Voice

Learning Objectives

  • Use active voice effectively

Use Active Voice

Just as we want to use active verbs in writing, it is also best to write in the active voice. The active voice emphasizes the person/thing doing the action in a sentence. For example, The outfielder throws the ball. The subject, “outfielder” actively performs the action of the verb “throw.” The passive voice emphasizes the recipient of the action. In other words, something is being done to something by somebody: The ball was thrown (by the outfielder). While the passive voice has a place, particularly in some subjects like the sciences and social sciences, its overuse can result in writing that is wordy, vague, and stuffy. When possible, use the active voice to convey who or what performs the action of the verb.

Active and Passive Voices

In the simplest terms, an active voice sentence is written in the form of “A does B.” (For example, “Carmen sings the song.”) A passive voice sentence is written in the form of “B is done by A.” (For example, “The song is sung by Carmen.”) Both constructions are grammatically correct, but active voice is a more powerful kind of sentence construction for most kinds of writing. Let’s look at a couple more examples of the passive voice:

  • I have been hit!
  • The car when it was struck from behind.

You may have noticed something unique about the previous two sentences: the subject of the sentence is not the person (or thing) performing the action. The passive voice “hides” who does the action. Despite these sentences being completely grammatically sound, we don’t know who hit “me” or what struck the car. If these sentences used an active voice, they could read:

  • The paintball hit me in the arm!
  • The aggressive truck hit the car from behind.

Let’s look at a few more examples.

  • Passive: Changes in gun laws were made as a result of student protests in Florida.
  • Active: The Parkland student protests created changes in Florida gun laws.
  • Passive: Studying can improve your grades.
  • Active: Students who study hard typically earn strong grades.

Let’s look at a few more examples.

Amy grabbed the zombie survival guide.

The zombie survival guide was grabbed by Amy.

Can you see how these sentences are different?

In the first sentence, the verb grabbed is active because its subject, Amy is the doer or agent. Amy did the grabbing.

In the second sentence, was grabbed is passive because it describes an action done to its subject, guide. The doer of the action, Amy, is now the object of the preposition by. Amy comes last here, almost as if she is an afterthought instead of the important doer of the grabbing or agent of the action.

We want to use active verbs whenever possible as they allow us to express ourselves clearly, succinctly, and strongly. Active verbs imply that we’re confident with what we’re saying; we believe in our words. Looking back at the two sentences, we can see that the first one uses fewer words and offers no ambiguity about who did the action. The latter sentence is wordy and does not directly address Amy.

TIP! A little strategy you can use to test to see if you’re using passive voice is to see if you can add “by zombies” after the verb. If you can, then you likely have passive voice and may want to restructure your sentence. In the example above, you could certainly say, “was grabbed by zombies,” so you know this is passive voice. Or, changes in gun laws were made “by zombies” as a result of student protests in Florida (again, passive voice).

Try It

Are the following sentences in the active or passive voice? How can you tell?

  1. The samples were prepared in a clean room before being sent out for further examination.
  2. Karen was dancing with Joshua when she suddenly realized she needed to leave.
  3. Carlos was a very serious scientist with unique interests.

Cartoon bug reading a piece of paper and scratching his head.

Figure 1. Be careful when using the passive voice- it can sometimes create confusing sentences that are difficult for the reader to follow.

Revise Weak Passive-Voice Sentences

As we’ve mentioned, the passive voice can be a shifty operator—it can cover up its source, that is, who’s doing the acting, as this example shows:

  • Passive: The taxes will be collected according to the local rules and regulations.
    • Collected by whom though? 
  • Active: The town will collect the taxes according to the local rules and regulations.

It’s this ability to cover the actor or agent of the sentence that makes the passive voice a favorite of people in authority, such as politicians, who want to obscure their agency (as if the town wasn’t responsible for collecting the taxes). At any rate, you can see how the passive voice can cause wordiness, indirectness, and comprehension problems.

Note that passive voice is sometimes appropriate to use, particularly in the sciences when the doer of the task is unimportant. For example, in a science lab, the passive voice makes sense when writing:

  • Photomicrographs were taken to facilitate easy comparison of the samples.

Don’t get the idea that the passive voice is always wrong and should never be used. It is a good writing technique when we don’t want to be bothered with an obvious or too-often-repeated subject and when we need to rearrange words in a sentence for emphasis. For most of your academic writing, however, your instructors will recommend the active voice.

Passive Question Active
Your figures have been reanalyzed in order to determine the coefficient of error. The results will be announced when the situation is judged appropriate. Who analyzes, and who will announce? We have reanalyzed your figures in order to determine the range of error. We will announce the results when the time is right.
With the price of housing at such inflated levels, those loans cannot be paid off in any shorter period of time. Who can’t pay the loans off? With the price of housing at such inflated levels, homeowners cannot pay off those loans in any shorter period of time.
After the arm of the hand-held stapler is pushed down, the blade from the magazine is raised by the top-leaf spring, and the magazine and base. Who pushes it down, and who or what raises it? After you push down on the arm of the hand-held stapler, the top-leaf spring raises the blade from the magazine, and the magazine and base move apart.
However, market share is being lost by 5.25-inch diskettes as is shown in the graph in Figure 2. Who or what is losing market share, who or what shows it? However, 5.25-inch diskettes are losing market share as the graph in Figure 2 shows.
For many years, federal regulations concerning the use of wire-tapping have been ignored. Only recently have tighter restrictions been imposed on the circumstances that warrant it. Who has ignored the regulations, and who is now imposing them? For many years, government officials have ignored federal regulations concerning the use of wire-tapping. Only recently has the federal government imposed tighter restrictions on the circumstances that warrant it.

Try It

Convert these passive voice sentences into the active voice. Why is the active voice a better choice for each of these sentences?

  1. The process, which was essential for the experiment’s success, was completed by Enzo.
  2. The cake that I worked on all day long is being eaten by Justin.
  3. After the pattern has been applied to the fabric, work on the embroidery can be started.

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