Passive Voice vs. Active Voice: FINALLY Understand the Difference
When you look over the following sentences, can you identify the ones written in passive voice and the ones using active voice?
- The blog post was being published by Reedsy.
- Reedsy had published the blog post.
- The blog post is published by Reedsy.
- The blog post will be published by Reedsy.
If you answered: “The only active sentence is ‘b’” — you are correct! The other three sentences were written using passive voice (and so was this one).
This post will show you exactly how to spot passive voice, how to fix it — and also when using passive voice is a-okay!
What is passive voice?
A sentence written with passive voice puts emphasis on the person or thing that experiences the action, instead of the person or thing driving the action.
For example, consider this line from Douglas Adams’ The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe:
“In the beginning the Universe was created.”
The subject of the sentence is “the Universe.” The action of the sentence is “created.” Because the subject is receiving the action (the creation is happening to the Universe), this is a passive sentence.
Passive sentences are comprised of the auxiliary verb ‘to be’ and the past tense of the main verb. For example:
“Am / Are / Is” + past verb tense — The dog is walked by his owner.
“Am / Are / Is being” + past verb tense — The dogs are being walked by their owners.
“Was / Were” + past verb tense — The dog was walked by his owner.
“Was / Were being” + past verb tense — The dogs were being walked by their owners.
“Will be” + past verb tense — The dog will be walked by its owner.
“Will have been” + past verb tense — The dog will have been walked by its owner.
“Have / Has been” + past verb tense — The dog has been walked by its owner.
“Had been” + past verb tense — The dog had been walked by its owner.
An important thing to note about passive voice is that it is not the same thing as past tense. Passive voice refers to who the action relates to, while past tense refers to when the action happened. For example, the sentence “The chef cooked dinner” is past tense because “cooked” is the past tense of “cooking.” However, the subject of the sentence is the chef, who is performing the action, so the sentence is active, not passive.
There are two types of passive sentences
Short passive, in which the subject or performer of the action is not known. For instance, the above example is short passive because it does not identify who/what the Universe was created by.
Long passive, In which the agent performing the action is known but it is not the subject of the sentence. For instance, the The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe example turns into a long passive sentence if changed to: “In the beginning, the Universe was created by the aliens.”
Let’s take a look at a few more examples of passive voice to ensure we’re all on the same page.
Passive Voice Examples
The following sentences all feature the action happening to the subject.
“He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was made.” — Scaramouche: A Romance Of The French Revolution by Rafael Sabatini
(The action “was born” is happening to the subject “he.”)
“Scarlet O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.” — Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell
(The action “caught by her charm” is happening to a subject “the Tarleton twins.”)
“When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.” — To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
(The action “got his arm badly broken” is happening to the subject “Jem.”)
“When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.” — The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
(The second part of this sentence sees the action “changed into a monstrous vermin” happening to subject “Gregor Samsa.”)
What is active voice?
Active voice is a sentence or clause that puts emphasis on the person or thing that drives the action, instead of the person or thing experiencing the action.
Think of the opening line from George Orwell’s 1984:
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
The subject of the sentence is “the clocks.” The action of the sentence is “striking.” Because the subject is driving the action (the clocks are doing the striking), this is an active sentence.
Check out further instances of active voice at play in the following examples.
Active voice examples
The following sentences all feature the subject enacting some kind of action.
“It was the day my grandmother exploded.” — The Crow Road by Iain M. Banks
(The subject “grandmother” is doing the action “exploded”).
“Mother died today.” — The Stranger by Albert Kamus
(The subject “mother” is doing the action “died.”)
“I write this sitting at the kitchen sink.” — I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
(The subject “I” is doing the action “write” and “sitting.”)
“You know, at one time, I used to break into pet shops to liberate the canaries.” — Harold and Maud by Colin Higgins
(The subject “I” is doing the action “break into pet shops” and “liberate the canaries.”)
Active vs passive voice: why is one considered better than the other?
It’s not a big secret in the world of grammar that passive voice is often considered as bad form. Supposedly, active voice produces stronger, more direct sentences that make your writing feel — surprise, surprise — more active.
But is passive voice actually grammatically incorrect? Nope! There are definitely times when using the passive voice can enhance a statement’s clarity.
When to use passive voice
If you are writing something that requires objectivity, like a research paper, passive voice can be your friend: It allows you to more easily avoid personal pronouns and to present information in a that sounds unbiased.
Or maybe you want to leave the perpetrator behind the action unclear. If the action itself or the thing/person receiving the action is more significant than the perpetrator, place emphasis on either of those elements by writing a short passive sentence, leaving the driving force of the action out.
For example, if you write: “The woman was sentenced to five years in jail” — the emphasis here is on the fact that the woman has received a sentence of jail. If you were to write: “The judge sentenced the woman to five years in jail” — the emphasis here is on the judge’s ruling instead.
As you can see, passive voice isn’t something you need to avoid at all costs: There are times when it’s the right choice. However, if you’re writing something meant to invite readers in — like a novel, for example — then relying too heavily on passive voice can result in writing that feels a little flat and loses a reader’s interest.
To avoid that, let’s take a look at how you can fix the use of passive voice in instances where active will serve you better.
How to fix passive voice in 2 easy steps
To show you the two fool-proof steps to fixing passive voice, we’ll use the following passive sentence as an example: “The dress was being made by the tailor.”
1. Remove the auxiliary verb
As mentioned, passive sentences often contain some form of the auxiliary verb “to be.” In this example, the auxiliary verb is “was being.”
Quick note: Not all passive sentences contain an auxiliary verb. For instance, “The dress was made by the tailor” is still passive, even though it doesn’t contain any tense of “to be” (in this example, “was being.”)
Take the auxiliary verb out and the sentence becomes:
The dress was made by the tailor.
But this is still passive, so the next step is to...
2. Change the subject of the sentence
The subject is currently “the dress” because the action in this sentence is happening to it (“the dress is being made.”) The subject of this sentence can be changed by attributing the action to the person performing it — in this case, the tailor. The sentence now becomes:
The tailor made the dress.
Congratulations! The subject is now the action-performer, meaning this sentence is now active!
Let’s put these two steps into action, and change a few more passive sentences into active ones.
Passive: The dinner was cooked by the chef.
Active: The chef cooked dinner.
Passive: The flowers were being planted by the gardener.
Active: The gardener was planting the flowers.
Passive: I had been interviewed by the manager.
Active: The manager interviewed me.
Passive: The students had been graded by the teacher.
Active: The teacher was grading the students.
Passive: The book was written by the author.
Active: The author wrote the book.
Passive: The house is being built by the construction workers.
Active: The construction workers are building the house.
We hope we’ve helped you understand how to identify and fix passive voice! If you feel like you could still use a hand, you can also turn to automatic passive voice checkers, such as Hemingway, Passive Voice Detector, Analyze My Writing — which are all free and web-based. Simply copy and paste the writing you want to check, and the tool will highlight instances of passive voice for you.
How do you feel about the “active voice is better than passive voice” rule? Leave any thoughts or questions in the comments below!