When emphasizing the subject performing the action, use the active voice. Additionally, use the active voice when aiming to write concisely. A passive voice is used when the recipient is emphasized (like in this sentence!). Students tend to run into problems when using the passive voice because it is easy to accidentally use unnecessary words, or introduce errors. When students use the active voice, their ideas come across clearly, concisely, and lively.
A common way the passive voice spreads out the action in a sentence is with a "by" phrase. For example, "the ball was hit by the bat."
Sounds funny, right?
To change this into the active voice, you want to move the subject to the beginning of the sentence: "The bat hit the ball."
In an active voice sentence, the subject is doing an action to another source. In a passive voice, the subject is the one who is receiving the action.
|Active Voice||Passive Voice|
|The active voice is used when the subject performs the action.||The passive voice is used when the action is performed on the subject.|
|The man caught the fish.||The fish was caught by the man.|
I drove my car on the road.
|The car was driven on the road by me.|
|The student wrote with a pencil.||A pencil was used to write the paper.|
The man watched the movie.
|The movie was watched by the man.|
Incorrect (passive): In 2008, a new president was elected and sworn in. A long, effective speech in honor of the inauguration of the president was given by Barack Obama because he was the president.
Correct (active): In 2008, Barack Obama gave his inaugural speech after being elected and sworn in as president.
Explanation: This passage would be stronger using an active voice rather than a passive voice because the subject and the action are hidden. In the second sentence, the speech was introduced first, but the subject came so late that the writer felt the need to repeat it for clarity.
Incorrect (passive): On Tuesday, the weather was being given on TV by chipper meteorologist Cindy Smith who was being a fill in for John Holly who was sick.
Correct (active): On Tuesday, meteorologist Cindy Smith filled in for John Holly, who was sick.
Explanation: The subject in this sentence is unclear and the sentence as a whole is unnecessarily long.
Incorrect (passive): The race car driver was given instructions by his crew chief while he was switching lanes back and forth trying to win the race.
Correct (active): The crew chief gave the race car driver instructions while he was driving.
Explanation: The sentence in a passive voice buries the action.
Caitlyn Davis, Framingham State U, Class of 2022
Julia Fitzgerald, Framingham State U, Class of 2022
Derrick Gutierrez, Framingham State U, Class of 2021
Matthew Maheras, Framingham State U, Class of 2022
“Active and Passive Voice” YouTube, uploaded by UBC Science Writing, 10 November 2013, www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=3&v=FHPQpgkNJb0.
Fig. 1. Active / Passive Voice from attanatta; Flickr, Flickr.com, 29 March 2017, www.flickr.com/photos/austinaronoff/32899631473.
Fogarty, Mignon. “Avoid This Common Passive Voice Mistake!” Quick and Dirty Tips, 14 November 2013, www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/avoid-this-common-passive-voice-mistake?page=1.
“Passive Voice.” Education First, www.ef.edu/english-resources/english-grammar/passive-voice/.
“Use the Active Voice.” University of Wisconsin-Madison, www.writing.wisc.edu/Handbook/CCS_activevoice.html.
“What is Active Voice?” Grammar Monster, www.grammar-monster.com/glossary/active_voice.htm.
“What is Passive Voice?” Grammar Monster, www.grammar-monster.com/glossary/passive_voice.htm.
Wolfson, Mariel. “Active vs. Passive voice: What’s the difference? What should I use? And why does it matter?” American Journal Experts, www.aje.com/en/arc/writing-with-active-or-passive-voice/.