One of the two “voices” of verbs (see also passive voice). When the verb of a sentence is in the active voice, the subject is doing the acting, as in the sentence “Kevin hit the ball.” Kevin (the subject of the sentence) acts in relation to the ball.
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What is "passive voice" and why exactly should we never use it?
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What is the active voice?
Active voice is a grammar term used to classify sentences in which the subject of the sentence is the one actively performing the action of the verb.
In grammar, voice is a way of classifying the relationship between the action of a sentence and the one (or ones) doing (or not doing) the action.
Active voice is contrasted with passive voice, in which the subject of the sentence is the recipient of the verb’s action. For example:
- The girl ate the apple. (active voice)
- The apple was eaten by the girl. (passive voice)
Why is the active voice important in writing?
You have probably been told by an English teacher to use active voice instead of passive voice. (Sorry, “An English teacher has probably told you ….”) But why? And more importantly—how?
Active voice is considered the default in normal English discourse. But passive voice is also very common. The best way to understand the difference is by looking at examples.
- “Grandma hugged me.” (active voice)
- “I was hugged by Grandma.” (passive voice)
- “I was hugged.” (also passive voice)
Grandma hugged me is in active voice because the subject of the sentence, Grandma, is the one performing the action.
I was hugged by Grandma is in passive voice because the subject of the sentence, I, is not performing the action but is the recipient of it. Grandma is still the one performing the action (she’s a hugger!).
I was hugged is also in passive voice. It simply omits the agent (the do-er) of the action. The fact that the agent can be omitted in passive-voice sentences allows us to do a simple trick that can usually determine whether a sentence is in active voice or passive voice.
If the verb in a sentence is followed with by (an agent), the sentence is passive. If there is no agent, try inserting by Grandma after the verb. For example, in the sentence I was pickpocketed, you could add by Grandma. This means the sentence is passive. If the sentence is already active (Grandma pickpocketed me), adding by Grandma wouldn’t make sense.
Sentences written in active voice are often considered more clear, engaging, and easy to read. However, there are some situations (like in scientific articles) in which the agent isn’t important, and using passive voice may be preferable (regardless of what your English teacher may think).
Being aware of how to use active voice can make you a more effective writer. And being able to identify when people are using active voice or passive voice can also make you a sharper reader and listener. Passive voice often allows the speaker or writer to avoid assigning (or accepting!) responsibility, so beware of passive statements like Mistakes were made.
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Active and passive aren’t the only voices in English. There is also middle voice, which is often associated with reflexive sentences or with sentences that have no agent. For example:
- Jane cut herself on that sharp corner. (Jane is the subject, but she wasn’t the agent of the cutting.)
- My bike rides very smoothly. (The bike isn’t the agent of the riding—the way it rides is smooth.)
What are some real-life examples of active voice?
Knowing how to change passive voice into active voice can help you be a more effective writer.
Grading papers. Wrote on one paper, “Writing in active voice is important because understanding political action, intent, and interests is key to good policy analysis.” But this is largely what’s wrong with most policy analysis in general 🤷🏻♀️
— Wendy Y. Li (@wendyliy) December 17, 2019
all of my editing feedback ends up being a) remove redundant words, especially adverbs and b) use active voice and center your sentences around verbs. literally that's it. 90% of basic editing
— Aamir (@aamir_not_amir) December 29, 2019
Which of the choices successfully changes the following sentence from passive voice to active voice?
“My friend was insulted by the mayor during the meeting at city hall.”
A. During the meeting at city hall, my friend was insulted by the mayor.
B. An insult was directed at my friend during the meeting at city hall.
C. The mayor insulted my friend during the meeting at city hall.