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Guide to Active vs. Passive Voice With Examples

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 3 min read

It’s an admonition that’s been uttered by everyone from high school English teachers to newspaper editors to renowned writing instructors: use the active voice over the passive voice. Another way of saying this is “make sure your subjects are performing an action rather than having an action performed on them.” But is active voice always superior to the passive voice? It isn’t quite so simple.



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What Is the Active Voice?

In active voice writing, the subject of a sentence is performing an action. That action is represented by a verb, which is the part of speech that anchors all complete sentences. Indeed, for a sentence to be “complete,” it must contain a subject and a verb, and it must express a full idea. When a sentence’s verb is enacted by its subject, we can say the sentence was written in active voice.

Examples of the Active Voice

Active voice sentences contain actions. All of the following sentences are written in active voice:

  • Marissa worked on her manuscript all night.
  • The judge knows the defendant is a flight risk.
  • The senator can see the value in surveying her constituents.
  • Coach Boggs will reveal this week’s game plan during practice.

As you can see, active voice verbs can occur in any tense—past tense, present tense, past perfect tense, present perfect tense, future tense, and beyond. The key is that an active sentence contains action verbs and that the action of the verb is performed by the subject of the sentence.

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What Is the Passive Voice?

Passive voice sentences contain subjects that are the object of the sentence’s verb. They are not the “doer” of the sentence; they are the recipient of an action. This is not to say that a passive voice sentence does not contain an action; it does, but the action is not performed by sentence’s subject.

Examples of the Passive Voice

In all passive sentences, the subject of the sentence has an action done upon them. The following are passive voice examples:

  • Sheila was persuaded to move to New York.
  • Esteban has been given three choices for his next assignment.
  • We were driven to the writing center by our teacher.
  • I will be asked to complete several physical challenges.

Much like active sentence construction, passive constructions do not depend on verb tense. Passive verbs can involve the present tense, the past participle, the future tense, the subjunctive, and more.

What Is the Differences Between Active and Passive Voice?

As a general rule of thumb, use of the active voice conveys strength and agency. Subjects control situations when their behavior is described using active voice. By contrast, use of the passive voice often coneys submissiveness and a lack of agency.


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4 Writing Tips for When to Use the Active vs Passive Voice

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No matter your writing format—from novels to journalism to research papers that conform to MLA style or APA style—most editors advise favoring the active voice when possible. But ultimately the choice between active and passive voice comes down to the specific needs of the sentence you are composing. Here are a few writing tips to help you decide which to use:

  1. Accuracy is paramount. Sometimes subjects really do receive the action of the verb, and to imply otherwise would be inaccurate. This comes up frequently in scientific writing. For instance in a chemical titration, the titrant acts upon a solution of unknown concentration; if you inverted these roles as a way to phrase a sentence in active voice, you would mislead your readers.
  2. Use your judgment. When accuracy isn’t at issue, make an attempt to use active voice. After all, which sentence seems more compelling: “Lunch was eaten by me” or “I ate lunch”?
  3. Consider the reader. Academic writing also favors the active voice. Academic audiences from middle school English teachers to doctoral dissertation committees prefer to read about strong subjects performing the action of the verb. A cascade of passive verbs, where the subject is the recipient of the action, can water down your prose and make it less compelling.
  4. Offer sentence variety. While active voice sentences tend to be more engaging, they can also become tedious unless a few passive voice sentences are peppered in. You want to keep your sentences varied in terms of length and in terms of declarations versus interrogations. The same variety should apply to the form of verb you choose. This principle applies to any writing style.

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