Passive Voice vs. Active Voice

Passive voice vs. Active voice

Many writers use passive voice without realizing it and knowing what it is. This is a problem because it makes sentences difficult to understand. Passive voice confuses readers as to who or what is doing the action of the sentence. The solution is to use active voice.

In this lesson you’ll learn: what passive voice is, how to recognize it in sentences, and how to correct it and make it active voice.

Let’s start by looking at these two sentences:

“The man ate the sandwich.”
“The sandwich was eaten by the man.”

Does one of them seem unnecessarily wordy and awkwardly phrased? That’s what using the passive voice often does to your writing.

 When you use active voice, the subject of the sentence does the action. But when you use passive voice, the subject of the sentence receives the action.

Look again at the first sample sentence. In it, the man (subject) is eating the sandwich (doing the action). The subject is an active participant in what’s going on. This is active voice.

Now look at the second sentence. Here the sandwich is the subject and the man is receiving the action of eating. This is passive voice.

Why is active voice better?
Active voice makes your writing clearer and more concise. Using passive voice can make your writing overly wordy and vague, often resulting in sentences that technically make sense but don’t sound quite right.

There’s also a difference in tone between active and passive voice. Active voice often sounds much stronger and clearer. Meanwhile, passive voice sounds slipperier and more evasive—almost like you’re trying to talk around something rather than addressing it head on.

How to write in active voice
Let’s go back one more time to the man and his sandwich:

“The sandwich was eaten by the man.”

Step 1: Identify the subject of the sentence.

The sandwich was eaten by the man.”

Step 2: Identify the action of the sentence.

“The sandwich was eaten by the man.”

Step 3: Ask who is doing this action?

“The sandwich was eaten by the man.”

Step 4: Rephrase the sentence so the person doing the action is the subject of the sentence:

Then you get: “The man ate the sandwich.”

A quick way to find who or what does the action of a sentence is to look for the words “by the.” What comes after that is usually the subject. Sometimes it’s going to be a little more complicated than this and you might have to use the context of the surrounding sentences to figure out who is doing the action.

Keep in mind that this doesn’t mean that you should always use active voice and never use passive voice. Sometimes passive voice does work better. For example, if the action is more important than who or what is doing that action, and you want to highlight that in your writing, then using passive voice makes more sense. The important thing is to use passive and active voice consciously—know what the effect of using each one will be and which one will most effectively convey what you want to say.

Maud Grauer wrote today’s post. She is new to Dot and Dash and will be working with Erin to write these informative blog posts here and on the Dot and Dash blog, along with other future educational materials. You can email her at Maud@dotanddashllc.com.

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