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Active Versus Passive Voice

Summary:

This handout will explain the difference between active and passive voice in writing. It gives examples of both, and shows how to turn a passive sentence into an active one. Also, it explains how to decide when to choose passive voice instead of active.

Contributors:April Toadvine, Allen Brizee, Elizabeth Angeli
Last Edited: 2012-10-12 03:05:53

Active voice is used for most non-scientific writing. Using active voice for the majority of your sentences makes your meaning clear for readers, and keeps the sentences from becoming too complicated or wordy. Even in scientific writing, too much use of passive voice can cloud the meaning of your sentences.

The passive (indirect) sentence, the entrance exam was failed by over one-third of the applicants to the school, includes an action performed upon the sentence subject (the entrance exam).

Image Caption: The action is performed upon the sentence subject, meaning this sentence is passive (indirect).

The active voice sentence subjects perform the action in the sentence, over one-third of the applicants to the school failed the entrance exam.

Image Caption: This is an example of the active voice because the sentence subject performs the action.

The subject (the brakes) is being acted upon by another individual (her) in the sentence, the brakes were slammed on by her as the car sped downhill.

Image Caption: This is an example of the passive voice.

The subject of this active voice sentence (she) performs the action in the statement, she slammed on the brakes as the car sped downhill.

Image Caption: This is an example of an active voice sentence because the sentence subject performs the action.

The bicycle is the subject of the action performed by the agent, who is omitted, in this passive voice sentence (your bicycle has been damaged).

Image Caption: This is an example of the passive voice.

The active voice sentence subject performs the action in this sentence, I have damaged your bicycle.

Image Caption: This is an example of an active voice sentence because its subject performs the action expressed in the verb.

Sentences in active voice are also more concise than those in passive voice because fewer words are required to express action in active voice than in passive.

This passive voice sentence (action on the bill is being considered by the committee) requires more words to communicate the idea that the committee is considering action on the bill.

Image Caption: This passive voice sentence is less concise than its active voice counterpart (shown below).

This active voice sentence (the committee is considering action on the bill) is more concise than the passive voice version (above).

Image Caption: This active voice sentence requires fewer words to communicate the same idea as the passive voice version (above).

This sentence (By then, the soundtrack will have been completely remixed by the sound engineers) is more wordy than an active voice sentence because the sentence subject does not directly perform the action described by the verb.

Image Caption: This passive voice sentence is more wordy than an active voice version.

This sentence (by then, the sound engineers will have completely remixed the soundtrack) uses the active voice and is more concise than a passive voice version because the subject directly performs the action.

Image Caption: This active voice sentence is more concise than the passive voice version (above) because the subject directly performs the action.

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