Key Differences Between Active vs. Passive Voice

active vs passive voice: scrabble and chalk

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

When you think of passive voice, do you immediately get a sense of dread? A splinter in your mind from your 7th grade English teacher commanding you to never use the passive voice because your writing will be forever banished to the heap of boring work that shall never be remembered?

Like the truly ridiculous admonishment that you should NEVER use adverbs, the passive voice has been stigmatized and misunderstood.

OK, maybe that’s a bit dramatic, but I’m here to tell you, there’s a place for the passive voice in your writing.

What’s the difference between an active vs passive voice?

Let’s start with identifying the basic differences between the two voices. Actually, let’s take one step further back and identify what voice means.

In grammar, tense is about time reference — is the action happening now (present), has it already happened (past), or will it happen in the future (future)? There are 12 tenses in the English language, but that’s the gist. Voice, on the other hand, describes whether the subject of a clause performs or receives the action.

To put it another way, the key difference between the active and passive voice is what or who is the focus of the sentence. In the active voice, the subject of the sentence is performing the action. In the passive voice, the target of the action is the focus of the sentence.

Take this sentence, for example.

Lawrence Durrell wrote the Alexandria Quartet.

That is an active sentence. Lawrence Durrell is the subject performing the action — he wrote the Alexandria Quartet.

That same idea in the passive voice would be:
The Alexandria Quartet was written by Lawrence Durrell.

In the active sentence, Lawrence Durrell is the focus of the sentence: he’s the doer, he wrote the four books that make up the Alexandria Quartet. In the passive version’s sentence structure, it is the books that are the focus.

What is an active voice?

Generally, the active voice has a clear, direct, and active tone. It is also straightforward and concise. To construct a sentence in the active voice, you can use the following equation:

Subject + verb + object

The editor covered my manuscript in red ink!
That clown really creeped me out.
Francis closed the door as the argument got heated.

The editor, that clown, and Francis are the subjects in those examples and are the ones performing the action. Whatever verb you use, if you structure a sentence with the subject performing the verb, you are writing in the active voice. Use the active vs. passive voice when you want your reader to focus on the subject of your sentence and the action taking place.

What is a passive voice?

In the passive voice, the target of the action is the focus of the sentence. Sometimes, that’s where the focus needs to be for several reasons.

The Union Bank on Maple Street was robbed today. The suspects are still on the loose.
In news accounts, the writer commonly uses passive voice. Sometimes, it’s because the people doing the action are unknown.

A museum in Ukraine was firebombed by Russian troops yesterday.
Sometimes, the focus is on the subject as that’s the point of import in the report. You could say “Russian troops bombed a museum,” which might still be worth considering. But as the context is already established, your reader knows that Russia is waging war on Ukraine, so who is doing the action is likely not the main thrust of the report.

Clinical tests are being conducted for a new Alzheimer’s drug.
In scientific reports, the passive voice is also commonly used. Scientists are presumably performing the tests, but they are not the focus of the story in the sentence above. If monkeys were the entities performing the tests, that might warrant a change in voice. This just in! Monkeys are conducting clinical tests for a new Alzheimer’s drug on unsuspecting elderly scientists. Now here’s Jim with the weather…

Sentences in the passive voice are usually wordier than those in the active voice, generally because the construction requires it.

Subject + (some form of) the verb “to be” + past participle of a transitive verb + (optional) prepositional phrase

A participle, for those of us who need a refresher, is a nonfinite verb form (i.e., cannot serve as the main verb in a clause) that is used in a sentence to modify a noun (or noun phrase) or verb (or verb phrase). A participle has some characteristics and functions of both verbs and adjectives.

Clinical tests [subject] are [present tense of “to be”] being conducted [past participle] for a new Alzheimer’s drug [prepositional phrase].

What are the benefits of using an active voice?

There’s no question that using the active voice in your storytelling is the way to keep the action simmering, your reader engaged, and the pace brisk. There’s a reason that news reports and scientific/academic writing is often detached and clinical.

The necessary use of passive voice contributes to this detachment and lack of action. After all, if something is always being acted upon, readers will find it hard to relate. We want to follow your protagonists and antagonists and anti-heroes doing something. Through their actions and motivations and dialogue, we connect to your writing and their story.

Should you use a passive voice in your story?

Yes, undoubtedly, there are going to be passages and sentences in your story that will lean on the passive voice. Here’s a passage from a book I’m writing that uses the active voice to convey an action sequence.

six months to publishing
He hit another rock, hard, which knocked him off the face of the cliff. He stopped spinning, and as if he were the bob at the end of a pendulum, Philip swung away from the rock and found himself looking straight down the sheer face to the ground, at the bodies of spiders and owls a hundred dizzying feet below. He instinctively cradled his injured left arm with his right forearm as he blew in the wind, sick with terror, and landed on his back on flat ground.

That wouldn’t work in the passive voice. The rock was hit by Philip… his injured left arm was cradled by his right… it would make the telling of the action stilted and clunky and hard to follow.

On the other hand, here’s another passage.

The door was closed. Lights off. The room was bathed in an eerie yellow glow as the moonlight filtered in through the sheer curtain swaying in the night breeze.

We don’t need to know who closed the door. And while you could make the moon the subject of the action — the moon bathed the room in an eerie yellow light — the idea is someone came upon this scene, and the room is the focus.

All that said, you are best off eradicating the unnecessary use of the passive voice in your story. Generally, you want your reader to experience the action as it is being done, through the eyes of who is doing it, not from the perspective of the thing the action is happening to.

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Hopefully, this sheds some light on the use of the active vs. passive voice and how to employ them to their best effect in your writing. As is usually the case, there’s lots of room for interpretation and artistic license when it comes to your writing.

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3 COMMENTS

  1. One of the most famous opening paragraphs in the history of literature is the opening lines of Pride and Prejudice and it is beautiful and elegant and not the brusque and dreary tone of most writers of today!

  2. As a fellow professional writer and editor (on nonfiction subjects),
    I’ve long held a strong aversion to the passive voice.
    I avoid the passive voice unless I cannot find a good way to avoid it —
    or unless, as you suggest, it’s truly useful and appropriate.
    But please note these three examples from your piece above:
    “The door was closed. Lights [were] off. The room was bathed ….”
    That’s not the passive voice but rather the “false passive” voice;
    it resembles the passive voice, but it “ain’t” the real passive voice.
    None of the three describes an action or process;
    instead each one consists of a stative verb plus an adjective (two of which are past participles).
    Please excuse and forgive my nitpickiness, but details matter, and accuracy matters.

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