Active vs. Passive Voice: Hear and Be Heard

First, a quick overview, in case all you need is a reminder: In active voice, the subject performs the action of the verb. In passive voice, the subject receives the action of the verb. If you feel like you need a little more than that, keep reading.

Passive Voice

The subject of a sentence is the person or thing that sentence is about. You can think of the passive voice as when action happens to the subject. In terms of format, passive voice generally combines a form of the verb to be with a past tense verb. In the sentence “Peter Parker was bitten,” for example, the to be verb is was and the past tense verb is bitten. The action (bite) is being performed upon the subject (Peter Parker), so this sentence is written in the passive voice.

Most sentences written in passive voice feature an agent that’s performing the action. For example, the above sentence could also be written as “Peter Parker was bitten by a spider.” Here, the agent (a spider) is performing the action on Peter.

Active Voice

In active voice, the subject itself performs the action rather than having the action performed upon it. So you can think of this subject as actively doing things. For example, “John bit into an apple.” John is the subject of the sentence, and performs the main action (bit). So this sentence is written in active voice. In active voice, the object of the sentence (typically a noun that receives the action) comes directly after the verb. Here, the object is apple. Sentences written in active voice don’t always need an object.

Changing Passive Voice to Active Voice

To change passive voice to active voice, make the agent of the sentence into the subject, and turn the old subject into the object. For example, this is a passive sentence: “The article is being read by most of my class.” The agent is most of my class, and the subject is the article. Written in the active voice, this sentence would be “Most of my class is reading the article.” Here, the new subject is most of my class and the object is the article.

Advantages of Passive and Active Voice

Active voice tends to sound more direct in tone because the subject leads the sentence. Asking “Why didn’t you answer your phone?” sounds more direct and authoritative than “Why wasn’t your phone answered by you?” It also makes the sentence sound much more clear.

Passive voice works well in instances when the agent is unclear, or when you want to de-emphasize the agent. It’s frequently used in scientific writing to neutralize perspective. This is particularly helpful when describing a specific process, as in “The flask was filled with a transparent solution.”

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