You can construct a sentence using either the active voice or the passive voice – the main difference between them being how the subject and object are positioned in relation to the action. Neither is “better” than the other: which one you choose depends on the context and your intentions as a writer. In this post, we’ll discuss the definition of both voice types and discuss how and when to use them in your writing.
Active Voice vs. Passive Voice
In the active voice, the subject of the sentence performs an action, and the object of the sentence is affected by that action. Active voice sentences typically follow a subject–verb–object structure:
Glenn (subject) cooked (verb) a delicious dinner (object).
In this example, the subject, Glenn, performs the action of cooking. The delicious dinner is the object because it’s affected by that action.
In the passive voice, the object of the sentence is moved to become the subject, and the agent performing the action is omitted or identified later in the sentence using a prepositional phrase. For example:
A delicious dinner (object phrase) was cooked (verb phrase) by Glenn (prepositional phrase).
What was formerly the object (dinner) is now the focus of the sentence, even though it’s still being acted upon (cooked) by Glenn. And because the emphasis is on the thing being acted upon, you can even remove the agent in the sentence (Glenn) entirely:
A delicious dinner was cooked.
Although this sentence is still grammatically correct, who or what performed the action of cooking is no longer clear.
When to Use the Active Voice
Use the active voice when you want to emphasize the subject’s action(s) or agency. The active voice tends to be clearer and more direct than the passive voice. Look at the difference between these:
Active voice: Quinn won first place in the race.
Passive voice:: First place in the race was won by Quinn.
Besides being more straightforward, the active voice tends to be less wordy and more engaging.
It’s also typically best to give instructions using the active voice because doing so clearly identifies the subject responsible for the action. For example:
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Active voice: Align the bottom shelf with the side panels.
Passive voice: The bottom shelf should be aligned with the side panels.
The active voice example presents the instructions with the subject (you) as the doer of the action (aligning the shelf). The passive voice example presents the instructions with the receiver of the action (shelf) as the subject. The passive voice shifts the focus from the doer to the receiver of the action, making the instructions sound more formal and objective.
When to Use the Passive Voice
Although the active voice is generally preferred for its directness, the passive voice is more appropriate in some situations. In scientific or technical writing, the focus is often on the processes or results rather than the individuals involved. For instance:
The samples were analyzed, and the results were recorded.
This sentence highlights the actions of analyzing and recording rather than who performed those actions. The practice is typical of scientific studies, which usually require an impersonal, formal tone.
The passive voice also allows you to be objective when describing events and shifts the focus from the person or people involved to the action being performed. This choice can be deliberate because it avoids assigning blame for a specific action, for example. Consider the following:
The window was broken last night.
The emphasis here is on the broken window itself, not on who or what broke it. In addition to using the passive voice to provide an objective account of events, you can use it when the agent that performed an action is unknown:
These beautiful flowers were just left on my doorstep.
What’s the bottom line? Use the passive voice to create distance between an action and who or what performed it, and use the active voice to emphasize the subject of your sentence and their actions.
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