Active Voice vs. Passive Voice: What’s the Difference?

Marcus Froland

Sometimes, the way you say something can make all the difference. That’s especially true when it comes to writing or speaking in English. There are two main roads you might take: the active voice or the passive voice. You might not think much about which one you’re using, but trust us, it matters more than you might realize.

In the active voice, the subject does the action. It’s like saying “The cat sat on the mat.” Simple and straight to the point, right? But then there’s the passive voice, where things get a bit more twisted. Here, it’s all about what happens to the subject, kinda like saying “The mat was sat on by the cat.” Sounds more complicated? Well, it can be. But why does this even matter and how can knowing the difference help you?

The main difference between active voice and passive voice lies in how a sentence is structured. In the active voice, the subject of the sentence performs the action, making sentences clear and direct. For example, “The cat chased the mouse.” Here, “the cat” is the subject actively doing the chasing.

In contrast, sentences written in passive voice have the object of an action as the subject of the sentence. This makes them less direct and sometimes harder to understand. An example would be, “The mouse was chased by the cat.” The focus shifts from “the cat” to “the mouse.”

In a nutshell, use active voice for clarity and directness; passive voice can be useful when you want to emphasize the action’s recipient or if you don’t know who performed the action.

Understanding Active Voice: Definition and Impact

At the core of strong writing and eloquent communication, you’ll find the active voice definition. When sentences are constructed in the active voice, the grammatical subject directly performs the verb, which yields a more concise and powerful statement. Let’s examine the mechanics of active voice and explore why it’s such an essential element of effective writing.

Consider these examples: “Shira likes birdwatching” and “She loves twilight.” In both sentences, the subject is clear (Shira and She), the action is direct (likes and loves), and the focus is on the subject and the action it is performing. The agent’s role in the sentence is emphasized, ensuring that the reader thoroughly understands who is responsible for the action.

There are several benefits to using active voice, including:

  • Greater clarity and directness in your writing.
  • An increased sense of immediacy and engagement.
  • A more concise and impactful expression of ideas.

Using direct speech and a clearly-defined grammatical subject can significantly enhance the strength of your writing. The combination of these elements positions the subject at the forefront of your sentences, where it actively leads the action.

“Active voice is often more direct and vigorous than passive.” – William Strunk Jr., author of “The Elements of Style”

In summary, mastering active voice is crucial for writers who want to deliver clear, concise, and compelling messages. By consistently focusing on the subject and its role in the action, you can create influential content that resonates with your audience.

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Decoding Passive Voice: Structure and Appropriate Use

In passive voice sentences, the action’s target takes center stage, with emphasis placed on the action or its result rather than the doer. These sentences typically contain a conjugated form of “to be” and the main verb’s past participle (e.g., “The check was paid”). Passive voice is common in situations where the focus is on the action itself, particularly in scientific writing, academic settings, and objective reporting. Let’s explore the role of passive voice in these contexts and instances when it takes precedence over active voice.

The Role of Passive Voice in Scientific and Academic Writing

Passive voice is integral to scientific and academic writing due to its objective tone, which minimizes the emphasis on the researcher or author and focuses on the process and results of the study. In a research paper, for example, you might encounter a sentence like “The rats were placed into the maze.” The use of passive voice shifts the focus to the action taken and the experimental process, rather than the individuals conducting the research.

Instances When Passive Voice Takes Precedence Over Active

In some cases, passive voice is more suitable than active voice, depending on the message you want to convey, the strategic push you aim for, or the focus you’d like to emphasize. Consider the following scenarios:

  1. Objective Reporting:

    “A car was broken into on Elm Street last night.”

    In news reporting, especially in crime stories where the perpetrator is unknown, passive voice accentuates the incident over the actor.

  2. Passive Construction:

    “The building was constructed in 1902.”

    Passive construction is used to communicate actions where the agent is either irrelevant or implied, ensuring the focus remains on the outcome of the action itself.

  3. Emphasizing Action:

    “The ball was hit by the child out of the park.”

    When the goal is to stress the action over the agent, passive voice places the emphasis on what happened rather than who performed it.

Instance Passive Voice Active Voice
Objective Reporting A car was broken into on Elm Street last night. Someone broke into a car on Elm Street last night.
Passive Construction The building was constructed in 1902. Builders constructed the building in 1902.
Emphasizing Action The ball was hit by the child out of the park. The child hit the ball out of the park.

Understanding the structure and appropriate use of passive voice helps you create deliberate, focused content that fully engages your reader. Although active voice is generally regarded as the go-to for concise and clear communication, recognizing when passive voice is suitable will elevate your writing, ensuring you select the right voice for your intended message.

The Influence of Voice on Writing Tone and Clarity

Choosing the right voice in your writing has a significant impact on the writing tone and overall clarity in writing. Depending on the context and the objective of your writing, the selection of an appropriate grammatical voice can be crucial to maintaining reader engagement and conveying the desired message.

Generally, active voice creates a straightforward, and authoritative tone, making the text easier to read and understand. This voice carries a sense of directness and dynamism, engaging the reader and ensuring an impactful delivery. On the other hand, passive voice can convey subtlety and formality by de-emphasizing the agent performing the action. This can be useful in scientific discourse or in situations where the agent’s identity is not essential, making text appear unbiased and objective.

“Active voice tends to be more straightforward and authoritative, engaging readers with its clarity and dynamism.”

Strategically employing both active and passive voices can evoke different nuances in your writing, playing a vital role in the writer’s intent and the reader’s perception. Let’s take a closer look at some instances of their use:

  1. For Persuasive Writing: If you want to present a compelling argument, a strong active voice is typically the best choice. It creates a confident and authoritative tone that commands the reader’s attention and reinforces your message.
  2. For Objective Reporting: In cases where an unbiased presentation of facts is required, passive voice can help remove emphasis from the subject, focusing solely on the action or the outcome. This can lend a formal and impartial tone to the text.
  3. For Expressing Subtlety: Sometimes, a more subtle approach is desired to soften the impact of an action or convey tactfulness. In these cases, passive voice can help achieve the desired effect without diminishing the overall message.

To maintain the quality of your writing, it’s essential to master the nuances of voice selection and adapt it based on the context and purpose. By carefully choosing between active and passive voice, you can ensure the tone and clarity of your writing is consistent with your intended message and brings maximum impact to your audience.

Active vs. Passive Voice: Examples and Transformations

Understanding the differences between active and passive voice and how to convert one to the other can significantly improve your writing. We’ll first look at some examples of passive constructions and learn how to transform them into active voice for a more engaging and clear message.

Revamping Sentences: Converting Passive Constructions to Active

Converting passive voice sentences to active voice requires identifying the performer of the action and placing it as the subject. Here are some examples to illustrate this process:

Passive: More flexible scheduling options are deserved by students.
Active: Students deserve more flexible scheduling options.

Notice how the active voice sentence directly engages the subject with the verb, resulting in a more concise and powerful statement.

Passive: The task wasn’t carried out by the trainees.
Active: The trainees didn’t carry out the task.

In this example, placing the subject upfront shortens the sentence and makes it easier to comprehend. Compare these passive and active sentences:

Passive Voice Active Voice
The ice cream was eaten by Mia. Mia ate the ice cream.
The results were analyzed by the researcher. The researcher analyzed the results.
The book was borrowed from the library by Nathan. Nathan borrowed the book from the library.

Using active voice makes these sentences shorter and more dynamic. Transforming passive to active voice often requires rewriting sentences to achieve maximum sentence clarity.

When revising your writing, be vigilant in identifying and converting passive voice sentences to improve impact and readability. Remember that, in some instances, passive voice may be appropriate, but transforming passive to active will generally yield clearer and more engaging text.

Choosing the Right Voice for Your Writing Needs

The choice between active and passive voice should be informed by the context and purpose of your writing. Active voice is generally preferred for its directness and ability to maintain the reader’s engagement. However, passive voice is more suitable in contexts where the action’s recipient is more important than the doer, or when the doer is unknown. When used appropriately, both voices can enrich writing, but active voice is often better for clear and concise communication.

Effective communication is crucial when crafting your message, and voice selection plays a significant role in achieving this. Be deliberate in your chosen voice, as it establishes the tone and impact of your writing. Active voice often creates a more compelling and assertive style, while passive voice can provide an air of formality and subtlety depending on the situation.

When deciding which voice to use, consider your audience and the message you want to convey. By striking the right balance between active and passive voice, you can create engaging and contextual content, enhancing your writing skills and ensuring your message resonates with your readers.

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