Active vs. Passive Voice (With Examples)
Writers are often told to stick to the active voice. But how do active and passive constructions differ? In this article, we look at the impact of grammatical voice on sentence length, clarity, and tension.
January 7, 2022 · 6 Min Read
In English, grammatical voice can be either active or passive. Both are correct, of course, but their applicability depends on what’s being written. Fiction, which seeks to elicit emotion, should be written in the active voice. In works where the writer prioritizes objectivity or formality, such as a textbook or journal article, the passive voice may be a better option.
What is active voice?
What is the active voice?
Active voice is when a sentence’s subject performs the verb. Usually, active voice constructions consist of a subject, verb, and object. The following sentence is written in the active voice:
James climbed the wall.
The subject (James) is the doer of the verb (climbed).
What is the passive voice?
Passive voice is when a sentence’s subject is the recipient of the verb action. The following sentence is written in the passive voice:
The wall was climbed by James.
The subject (the wall) is the receiver of the verb (climbed).
Why the Active Voice is Better for Fiction
Passive voice constructions increase wordiness
In fiction and narrative nonfiction, the conciseness of explanations has a direct impact on the quality of the prose. Sentences written in the active voice are usually shorter and more to the point. This is due to the passive voice’s reliance on a conjugated form of to be (be, am, is, are, was, were, been, or being). Passive constructions also usually require a preposition. In our passive example, “The wall was climbed by James,” both was (past tense of to be) and by (preposition) had to be added. Don’t worry about the technical jargon too much, just remember that wordiness—when the writer uses too many words to describe something—is the bane of good prose and should be avoided at all costs.
Passive voice constructions decrease immediacy
Sentence length aside, the passive voice also lessens immediacy. Have a look at the following sentences:
Jane bashed the padlock.
The padlock was bashed by Jane.
It is easier to convey immediacy—and therefore tension—when the subject is the doer of the verb. In the first sentence, Jane takes center stage. Why did she bash the padlock? Was she trying to escape? Did someone need rescuing? The second sentence is comparatively bland. The padlock is the focus; the questions surrounding Jane’s actions fall to the wayside. In fiction, conflict is crucial; and tension and immediacy are crucial components of conflict.
Passive voice constructions decrease reader engagement
In fiction, reader engagement is dependent on the emotional response of the reader. Passive voice constructions relegate the doer of the verb in favor of the thing or person being acted upon. However, it is usually the doer of the verb that the writer wants the reader to empathize with. Have a look at the following example:
Andy disliked William.
William was disliked by Andy.
In the first sentence, Andy is the focal point. The reader immediately wonders why Andy (the doer) has a problem with William. When a question arises, it increases reader engagement. Passive constructions have a detrimental impact on a scene’s emotional pull due to the distance it places between the doer of the verb and the rest of the sentence. In our passive example, William and Andy are portrayed evenly—even though the writer wants the reader to focus on Andy’s prejudice.
Passive voice constructions can be difficult to understand
Passive constructions can muddy a sentence’s meaning. Have a look at the following example:
Darkness stretched over the land until even the dimmest candle was snuffed out.
Snuffed out was the dimmest candle as the land was stretched over by darkness.
The active sentence’s meaning is clear. The passive construction, on the other hand, is clumsily constructed and difficult to understand. Remember, good prose is almost always accessible; it should be easy for the average reader to understand what the writer means.
When to Use the Passive Voice
There is nothing inherently wrong with the passive voice; it is just as valid as the active voice. However, it is mostly used for writing that strives to be objective or formal. Technical writing, textbooks, reports, and memos are a few examples of such writing.
Passive constructions can also be used in fiction; but, as alluded to, it should be done sparingly. Character dialogue is one instance where the passive voice can work. If a character or a group of characters structure their speech with passive constructions, then the writer can get away with writing their dialogue in the passive voice. In general, however, the passive voice should not be used when writing fiction.
Active and Passive Voice Examples
The painter painted the house.
The house was painted red by the painter.
She parked her car beneath the tree.
Her car was parked beneath the tree by her.
Harry wrote a note.
The note was written by Harry.
Everyone laughed at them.
They were laughed at by everyone.
The dog and the parakeet devoured the food.
The food was devoured by the dog and the parakeet.
The lumberjack hacked the tree, then took the wood. The fire warmed the inside of his cabin.
The tree was hacked at by the lumberjack, then the wood was taken by him. The inside of his cabin was warmed by the fire.
How to Identify and Rewrite Passive Constructions
Changing a passive construction into an active construction is a straightforward process. First, however, the passive construction has to be identified. As mentioned, the thing being acted upon is the subject in the passive voice. When searching for passive sentences, pay attention to any conjugated forms of to be (be, am, is, are, was, were, been, or being). Finally, a preposition (at, by, for, from, in, of, on, to, etc.) is also usually present—however, this is not always the case. Have a look at the following sentence:
The skyscraper was designed by Damian.
The subject (the skyscraper) is being acted upon, so we know that this is a passive construction. The sentence also contains the past simple tense of to be (was) and a preposition (by).
To rewrite a sentence as an active construction, identify the doer of the verb, then rewrite the sentence with it as the subject. In the above sentence, who is executing the verb? Damian. Have a look at the rewritten version:
Damian designed the skyscraper.
In this rewritten version, Damian (the doer of the verb) is the subject, so we know that the sentence is written in the active voice. Note that the rewritten version also lacks a preposition and a conjugated form of to be.
Sentences written in the passive voice can bloat text and decrease reader engagement. If you need help changing passive constructions into the active voice, then have a look at Manuscript Mentoring’s Services page. Our developmental editors specialize in streamlining prose and increasing the emotional pull of writing.