Active Voice vs. Passive Voice: What They Are and When to Use Them

Active voice and passive voice are vital in how your sentences are structured and how effectively they convey your message. Understanding the difference between these two voices is fundamental to mastering the art of writing.

The biggest problem most writers (of any level) have is slipping back and forth between the two voices without even realizing it. I see it all the time. So, let’s break it down into digestible facts.

What Is Active Voice?

In an active voice, the sentence’s subject does the main action. It creates more engaging and direct sentences.

  • Candace ate an apple. Here, Candace (the subject) is eating (the action).

What Is Passive Voice?

In a passive voice, the verb acts upon the subject. Basically, the target of the action gets promoted to the subject position.

  • The apple was eaten by Candace. Here, Candace (the subject) is receiving the action.

In most types of writing, the passive voice is set aside in favor of the active voice to create more engaging sentences.

How to Tell the Difference

The biggest difference between active and passive voice is the sentence’s order and the action’s focus. In an active voice, the action is performed by the subject.

  • The formula for this is Subject + Verb + Object.

But in a passive voice, the subject is acted upon.

  • The formula is Object + Auxiliary Verb (to be) + Past Participle + by + Subject.

When to Use Active Voice

Active voice is used most of the time in writing, so try to utilize it when you can. It creates clearer, more engaging, and more direct sentences. It’s especially effective in narratives, where it can add dynamism and immediacy to the prose.

When to Use Passive Voice

Even though passive voice isn’t as common, it still has a place in writing. You can use it when the actor in a sentence is unknown or irrelevant or when you want to emphasize the object of the action above all else.

Take scientific writing as an example. The passive voice typically emphasizes the experiment rather than the experimenter.

Sentence Examples Using Passive Voice

  • The kitchen window was broken by the violent storm.
  • Her entire cake was eaten by the children.
  • The report was written by the team.

Sentence Examples Using Active Voice

  • The violent storm broke the kitchen window.
  • The children ate her entire cake.
  • The team wrote the report.

See how the sentences, even though they’re the same length, are more concise and flow much better?