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.

manuscript-mentoring.png

Manuscript Mentoring

January 7, 2022 · 6 Min Read

active_vs_passive_voice.jpg

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 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).

active_voice_examples.jpg
 

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:

Active voice

Jane bashed the padlock.

Passive voice

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 is she bashing the padlock? Is she trying to escape? Does 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:

Active voice

Andy disliked William.

Passive voice

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:

Active voice

Darkness stretched over the land until even the dimmest candle was snuffed out.

Passive voice

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.

what_is_passive_voice.jpg
 

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

Example #1

Active voice

The painter painted the house.

Passive voice

The house was painted red by the painter.

Example #2

Active voice

She parked her car beneath the tree.

Passive voice

Her car was parked beneath the tree by her.

Example #3

Active voice

Harry wrote a note.

Passive voice

The note was written by Harry.

Example #4

Active voice

Everyone laughed at them.

Passive voice

They were laughed at by everyone.

Example #5

Active voice

The dog and the parakeet devoured the food.

Passive voice

The food was devoured by the dog and the parakeet.

Example #6

Active voice

The lumberjack hacked the tree, then took the wood. The fire warmed the inside of his cabin.

Passive voice

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.

passive_voice_examples.jpg
 

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:

Passive voice

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:

Active voice

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.

Manuscript Mentoring

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.