How to Use Active and Passive Voice in Your Writing
Understanding the difference between active and passive voice and being able to use both freely is an important part of learning English composition. Students are often encouraged to avoid using the passive voice because it can make a sentence come off as “weak.” However, there are situations in which the passive voice is appropriate. Read on to learn when and how to properly use active and passive voice.
Table of Contents
- How to Use Active Voice
- How to Use Passive Voice
- Difference Between Active and Passive Voice
- How to Change Passive Voice to Active Voice
- How to Change Active Voice to Passive Voice
How to Use Active Voice
In active voice sentences, the subject performs the verb. These sentences make it abundantly clear who does what.
- We submitted our assignments.
Here, the subject is “we” and the verb is “submit.” “We” -- the subject -- is doing the “submitting.” In other words, the subject is acting upon the verb.
The girl studies hard.
The dog chews his bone.
I work from home.
Can you see the pattern? Active voice sentences have the structure “subject-verb-object.” Sentences written in active voice are generally more direct and concise than their passive alternatives, which can be unnecessarily wordy. Most casual conversations are almost exclusively in active voice, and passive sentences tend to sound more formal. As such, using the passive voice can also come off as overly stiff or standoffish.
How to Use Passive Voice
Passive voice sentences, on the other hand, have the structure “object-verb-subject.”
- Our assignments were submitted.
Here, it is unclear who submitted “our assignments.”
The food was purchased from the supermarket.
The samples were analyzed by the lab.
The donated books were organized.
Passive voice sentences are more commonly used in written English and typically appear more formal than their active voice counterparts. They also emphasize the action or the thing being acted upon rather than the “actor.” For example, take the sentence “The donated books were organized.” In this sentence who organized the books is unimportant; the emphasis is on the fact that the books were organized.
Differences Between Active and Passive Voice
Here is a summary of the differences between active and passive voice.
|Active Voice||Passive Voice|
|Structure||subject + verb + object||object + verb + subject|
|Emphasis||the subject||the object or the verb|
|Formality||can be less formal||generally more formal|
Passive voice removes the emphasis from the subject; as such, passive voice sentences tend to appear more objective. This is why passive voice is often adopted when reporting scientific studies.
How to Change Passive Voice to Active Voice
While revising your writing, you may find that a sentence written in passive voice is too clunky and decide to change it to active voice while retaining the same meaning. To do so, you simply remove the auxiliary verb and replace it with the main verb. Then, you remove the preposition “by” (if it is present) and switch the positions of the subject and the object. Be sure to change the form of the words (such as pronouns) when necessary.
The composites were fabricated (by us).
We fabricated the composites.
The subject is often omitted from passive voice sentences; this is because the “actor” is often unimportant in passive sentences. As such, when changing a passive sentence to an active one, it may be necessary to identify the correct subject.
How to Change Active Voice to Passive Voice
You can reverse the steps above to change a sentence from passive voice to active voice.
John purchased the apples.
The apples were purchased (by John).
First, you switch the positions of the subject and object. Then you add an auxiliary verb before the main verb. Make sure to include the preposition “by” before the subject or omit the subject altogether.