Active voice and passive voice are verb forms that can quickly confuse and frustrate a writer. Use the active voice when possible to improve your work.
In English writing, verbs have just two grammatical voices: active voice and passive voice.
While active and passive voices have their place and are grammatically correct, the active voice usually creates stronger writing. In most instances, writers should use active voice. Here's a closer look at how the verb's action, and therefore the voice, impacts your writing.
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What Is Active Voice?
Active voice occurs when the subject of a sentence performs the action of the verb. This is a powerful way to write, and it speaks directly to the reader. These examples show the active voice in practice:
- Dogs love bones.
- The mom picked up the baby and rocked him.
- The store opened its doors.
These sentences use the form: subject, verb, object. Even if you add a prepositional phrase, the subject's basic structure and verb remain the same.
The second sentence has a compound verb, but still the same basic structure. The dog does the action of loving. The mom does the action of picking up and rocking the baby. The store does the action of opening its doors.
The subject of the sentence in each example does the action. By using an active voice sentence, you can convey your meaning with fewer words.
What Is Passive Voice?
The passive voice, on the other hand, happens when the verb acts on the subject. In other words, the subject has some action done to it. So these sentences could be re-written as:
- Bones are loved by dogs
- The baby was picked up and rocked by his mom.
- The doors were opened by the store.
The first two sentences still make some sense, but they are wordy. The last sentence doesn't even make sense when written in a passive sentence structure.
How to Identify an Action Verb Versus a Passive Verb
In order to get voice construction right and write strong sentences, you must be able to identify a passive verb. Passive verbs use a form of to be paired with the past participle of the verb. So, in the first example above:
Bones are loved by dogs.
Are is the form of to be and loved is the past participle of love.
Forms of to be include: was, is, am, are, have been, has, will be, being, and will have been.
Grammar teachers and writers also call these “helping verbs.”
Are all instances of helping verbs passive voice? No. In order to be the passive voice, the helping verb must work with a past participle.
This is where the distinction can get confusing.
Consider this sentence:
- I understand how it feels to be loved.
In this sentence, I is the subject. I is doing the action of understanding. Even though it has be loved at the end, the active subject and verb pair means the sentence has active voice.
When determining active voice, always look at the subject and the verb. So how can you identify passive voice so you can fix it? Simply look for the action and who did it.
The person or thing doing the action should be the subject of the sentence and come before the verb. If it comes after the verb and is not the subject of the sentence, and you also see past participle, then the sentence is passive voice.
More Examples of Active Voice
Seeing active voice in action makes it easier to spot. Here are some additional examples of active voice:
- We will watch a movie tonight.
- The construction crew rebuilt the broken bridge.
- Every Saturday, I will clean the house.
- Mother washed all of the laundry.
- Mary is going to make dinner tomorrow.
Even though some have helping verbs or include future and past tense verbs within the sentence structure, all of these are examples of active voice. In every sentence, the subject is the doer of the action.
This makes the sentence constructions active.
When Should You Use Active Voice?
Active voice is best in any sentence where it makes sense. It makes tighter, clearer writing and eliminates problems with wordiness. Passive voice makes the sentence vague, and that can confuse the reader.
As a general rule of thumb, you need to use active voice any time it works, so most of your sentences are active. Only use passive if you have no other choice.
Here are four types of writing where readers nearly always prefer the active voice.
Bloggers tend to write in a more casual tone and voice. Readability and engagement are the two key elements of a blog post.
Bloggers often throw conventional grammar rules out the window, but they should still try to write clearly and concisely. To keep their reader's attention, bloggers must be succinct because online readers have short attention spans.
They also need to write clearly without vague meanings, for this reason, active voice works well.
2. Academic Writing
In the academic world, publishers almost always prefer active voice. However, some instances where passive voice is the only way to make a point are possible in academic writing.
Active voice is the writing voice of choice in all instances except when it does not work to convey the intended meaning.
Students should always focus on writing in the active voice. Professors and teachers tend to prefer this type of writing.
Only use passive voice if the active voice construction is impossible to convey the meaning when writing papers for a school setting.
4. Published Authors
In published works, including works of fiction, the rules are a bit more flexible. Readability is the key consideration, especially when writing fiction, as is the conveyance of meaning.
Writers want their writing to clearly show what they intend, and often that will mean active voice. However, the passive voice is more acceptable in published works, especially fiction, than it is in academic and student writing.
What About Business Writing?
Business writing is one place where active voice is less important. Because active voice clearly shows who the doer of the action is, it often makes sense, but the requirement to write actively is less stringent in the business world. That said, if you want to become a copywriter use the active voice where possible.
What Is the Active Voice? The Final Word
Mastering passive voice and active voice, and when to use which, is one of the keys to becoming a strong writer. As you learn other writing tips to make your writing stronger, make sure active writing remains at the top of your list of tools to pull.
Even as you develop your writing voice, continue to focus on writing actively.
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