Writing Tip: Active Vs Passive Voice

I completely confess and admit that I struggle with keeping an active voice when I write. In fact, much of my self-editing work is changing my sentences from passive to active voice. I figure I am not alone, so here is a refresher:

Grammar Tip: active vs passive voice

Image by ArtsyBee (2015) via Pixabay, CCO Public Domain

Voice refers to an action being done or being received by the subject.

With active voice, the subject performs the action. Writing in active voice makes a piece stronger and more direct. It also makes a piece more interesting to read.

For example: Jan read the book.

With passive voice, the subject receives the action. Writing in passive voice isn’t bad per se but it is often more wordy and clunkier than active voice.

For example: The book was read by Jan.

How to change a sentence from passive to active voice

First, look for the subject(s) and the predicate (main verb) of the sentence. As yourself, “Is the subject performing the action or is the subject receiving the action?”

If the subject is performing the action you don’t have to do anything; the subject is in active voice. If the subject is receiving the action, rewrite the sentence so that the subject is performing the action.

Fore example:

Passive voice: The short story was proofread by Mary.

To fix, rewrite the sentence (it often helps to move the subject before the predicate)…

Active voice: Mary proofread the short story.

When to use passive voice

It is almost always preferable to use active voice. However, there are times when passive voice is not only acceptable but required. For instance, if the subject of the sentence is not known then you will need to use passive voice.

For example: The tablet was left on the table.

(The subject, who the person is that left the tablet, is not known so it is necessary to write this sentence in passive voice.)

It is also acceptable to use passive voice if the subject is secondary to the object receiving the action.

For example: Three rough drafts were required before final publication.

(It is the emphasis on the “were required” that is important here which is why it is written passive voice; otherwise, the sentence could be rewritten as “Final publication requires three rough drafts.”)

One thing to keep in mind is that the use of passive or active voice in writing is an issue of style. It is not grammatically incorrect to use passive voice. It is all about clarity so use whatever works to best convey your message to your audience.

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