Grammar Help: Active and Passive Voice

What does it mean to be active? Often, when people think of “active,” they imagine themselves doing some sort of physical activity, like exercise. Perhaps you think of someone dancing, running, or even doing chores around the house. In writing, an active voice has a similar meaning as well. A sentence that uses active voice is one where the subject is the one performing the action, or the verb. In contrast, passive voice works the opposite way, with the subject being acted on by the verb. To write effectively, you should avoid passive voice because it takes away from your overall clarity of ideas. Instead, use active voice to ensure that your ideas are written in the most concise way.

Active Voice vs. Passive Voice

A sentence with active voice is one where the subject of the sentence is the one performing the verb. In most sentences, the subject appears at the beginning of the sentence. A big clue that you’re looking at passive voice is a subject falling to the end of the sentence. Then, the verb comes first and acts on the subject.

Another great way to identify passive verbs in your writing is to look for these words in a verb phrase:

  • is (examples – is walking, is sleeping, is working)
  • was (examples – was written, was swimming, was replaced)
  • were (examples – were talking, were invented, were explained)

When you see any of these as the start of a verb phrase, you’re very likely looking at the passive voice.

Let’s look at a few examples to clarify these definitions:

Active: Sam at the cookies.
Passive: The cookies were eaten by Sam.

Active: Our family took a vacation last year.
Passive: A vacation was taken by our family last year.

Active: Many people enjoy decorating their homes for the holidays.
Passive: Decorating homes for the holidays is enjoyed by many people.

Active: The teacher gave her students instructions for the homework.
Passive: The instructions for the homework were given to the students by the teacher.

Active: The mother kangaroo carried her baby in her pouch.
Passive: The baby kangaroo was carried by the mother in her pouch.

Notice how the passive verbs created sentences that weren’t quite as clear, and in every example, the sentence became longer and wordier. Improve your writing with a simple switch to the active voice!

active voice; editing

Revising Your Own Writing

As you search for passive verbs in your own writing, remember to look for those clue words: is, was, and were. Also, you can find passive voice by identifying the subject that should be performing the verb. Does it come before the verb? If not, you’ll need to make some changes.

For example, let’s look at this sentence:

The song was sung by a choir.

First, we identify the verb. In this case, it’s “sung.”

Next, we should ask ourselves who should be performing that verb. The song isn’t the one singing; it’s the choir. But, the choir comes after the verb. That means we’re looking at a passive verb. Finally, we can revise by moving the correct subject to the front of the sentence, like this:

The choir sang the song.

Now, the choir is the one doing the singing, which is just what we want. The end result is a clear, concise, and active sentence!