Active Voice Vs Passive Voice: A Simple Guide for Writers & Authors

Active voice vs passive voice. You’ve probably come across these terms several times. Contrary to what you might have heard, active voice and passive voice have nothing to do with the amount of action in a sentence. No, seriously, a sentence doesn’t become passive because people are not doing anything in the statement.

Active voice and passive voice are writing styles present in every sentence and can be one of the most important ways to create a strong and engaging tone in any type of writing. When used correctly, it can help writers create the right impression on their audience and ensure that their message is communicated effectively.

Active voice helps to make writing more concise and direct, eliminating unnecessary words or phrases. And with the right writing apps such as Grammarly, Wordtune or Quillbot, you can easily identify mistakes like passive voice misuse and other errors.

This guide is going to explain:

  • What active voice and passive voice mean
  • The difference between the two styles of writing
  • When to and when not to use each style
  • Book genres suited to either active voice or passive voice

Related Reading: Passive Voice In Writing: What Is It And When To Use It?

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What is Active Voice?

Active voice is when a statement starts with a subject and ends with an object. The subject is usually the thing doing something, while an object is a thing that has something being done to it. Active voice often mirrors the natural way people speak in daily conversations.

Consider this sentence:

Active: “Jane groomed the dog”

Jane did something (groomed), which makes her the subject.

Jane did something (groomed), which makes her the subject.

Jane is the subject because she is the one performing the action.

Another example is:

Active:Charles Dickens wrote Great Expectations.”

Charles Dickens did something (wrote), which makes him the subject

Great expectations is the object because it is the thing Charles Dickens did something to. This is a natural and normal way of speaking.

While active voice is easy, natural, and straightforward, it is not the only way of writing.

What is Passive Voice?

Passive voice is when a statement starts with an object and ends with a subject. The emphasis here is on the object, instead of the subject. It is the direct opposite of active voice.

As we already covered, an object is something that has a certain action done to it, while a subject is the thing that performs the action.

Consider the following example: “Great Expectations was written by Charles Dickens.”

Passive: “Great Expectations was written by Charles Dickens.”

Great Expectations had something done to it (it was written), which makes it the object.

Great Expectations had something done to it (it was written), which makes it the object. Charles Dickens is the one who did something to Great Expectations, he is therefore the subject. Passive voice is a less natural way of having normal conversations.

The following section is going to look at the differences between active and passive voice.

Active voice Vs passive voice: what’s the difference?

The choice of whether to use active or passive voice will have an impact on how your audience receives your writing. However, you first need to understand the difference between the two styles of writing before choosing one.

The main difference between active and passive voice lies in where you decide to place a statement’s subject and object. Active voice sentences have the subject closer to the beginning, and the object nearer to the end of the statement.

Active:Charles Dickens wrote Great Expectations.”

Charles Dickens (subject), closer to the beginning of the sentence

On the other hand, passive voice sentences will usually start with the object and end with the subject.

Passive:Great Expectations was written by Charles Dickens.”

Great Expectations (object) closer to the beginning

In addition, passive voice sentences still make sense when you remove the subject from the statement.

More Examples

Here is an example of active voice and passive voice:

Active: “Andre beta read Kelly’s manuscript.”

Passive: “Kelly’s manuscript was beta-read by Andre.”

Here is another example of active and passive voice:

Active: “David bought the entire bookshelf.”

Passive: “The entire bookshelf was bought by David.”

If the concept of active and passive voice confuses you, simply check the position of the subject and object.

Active Voice Vs Passive Voice Grammar

Active Voice Grammar Rules

Most things have formulas. Active voice is not much different in that regard. There are certain grammar rules you need to follow in order to have a proper active voice statement.

These rules are mostly about where your subject and object go. Follow these rules when writing active sentences:

  • Always place the subject as close to the beginning of the sentence as possible.
  • The subject never comes after the verb or the object.
  • Next comes the verb, which is also known as an action word.
  • The verb never comes before the subject or after the object.
  • The object always comes last.
  • The object never appears before the verb or the subject.

An easy-to-remember formula is:

Active Voice Formula: subject + verb + object.

Example: “John [subject] edits [verb] books [object].

Your sentences will be in active voice as long as you remember the order is subject, verb, and then object.

Passive Voice Grammar Rules

Active voice has rules. Similarly, passive voice also has rules. Like with active voice, passive voice rules are mostly about the position of subjects and objects. Keep the following in mind when writing in passive voice:

  • The object always comes first.
  • A linking verb comes next in most cases.
  • The verb/action word comes third.
  • A preposition/word showing a relationship between the verb and subject comes next.
  • The subject comes last of all.

You can use the formula:

Passive Voice Formula: object + linking verb + verb + preposition + subject.

Example: “The book [object] was [linking verb] published [verb] by [preposition] Tor books [subject].

Passive voice rules are easy to remember if you keep in mind it is the exact opposite of active voice.

When Should You Use Active Voice In Writing?

Use active voice when you want to place emphasis on the subject in a statement. You can also use active voice to write shorter, easy-to-understand, simple, and more concise sentences.

Stories, novels, and narrative dialog read better when written in active voice. Most articles and pieces meant to be read by ordinary audiences should follow the same principle. An active voice sentence like “John wrote a book,” is shorter and more concise than “The book was written by John.”

An active voice sentence like: “The big brown dog is eating the little mouse,” is easier to understand, compared to “The little mouse was being eaten by the big brown dog.”

The active voice is preferred by most ordinary writers because it is easier for readers to digest.

Passive Voice: When should you use it In Writing?

Use passive voice when you want to place more emphasis on the object. You could even remove the subject, and come away with a sentence that still makes sense.

Passive voice takes away attention from the subject, which can be great if you want to gloss over who performed an action. This style of writing remains popular in academic writing, although that is gradually changing.

#1. In Academic writing

A sentence like “The prestigious award was won by Chuck Wendig,” places more emphasis on the award, rather than who won it.

Passive: “The prestigious award was won by Chuck Wendig,”

Passive voice is commonly used in academic writing

#2. In diplomatic Instances

A statement like “Mistakes were made during the editing stage,” is friendly and diplomatic, because it brings the point across that a mistake was made, without assigning blame to anyone.

Passive: “Mistakes were made during the editing stage,”

Passive voice is often used to show dissatisfaction in a diplomatic way

The passive voice clearly has its own uses, especially when you want your reader to focus on the object.

👉 See our guide on When to use passive voice in writing.

When Not To Use The Active Voice In Writing?

The active voice remains popular. When in doubt, always go with the active voice in most cases. That said, there’re situations you want to avoid using the active voice. This is especially true in situations where you want to put little to no emphasis on the subject.

Consider the following statements: “John assassinated the president.”

Active: “John assassinated the president.”

Active voice used this way does not deliver the message in the most beneficial way

The first statement puts the attention on a nobody named John. If this was a news report, people would first want to know that the president has been assassinated.

So, it doesn’t make sense to report the news in this way – since it doesn’t deliver the message in the most beneficial way

Here is another example:

Active: “Leona made mistakes that cost the company millions.”

Active voice used this way shows a lack of diplomacy

The second statement blames the subject, which might not always be diplomatic. While the active voice should be your style of choice in most cases, passive voice makes sense only in certain situations.

When Not To Use The Passive Voice In Writing?

Avoid the passive voice in most situations outside academic writing. This is especially true if you are aiming for shorter and easy-to-read sentences.

Passive voice sounds unnatural, especially in narrative writing. In addition, it can leave readers with questions if you omit the subject from a sentence.

Consider the following statements:

Passive:John was visited by Stephen King.”

Passive voice used in this way de-emphasizes the person of Stephen King, a world-famous author

The first statement above places emphasis on a person the reader might not know, whereas Stephen King, a world-famous author, doesn’t get as much attention in the sentence. This kind of writing does not cater to the needs of the reader – since we all know that the reader would be curious about Stephen King.

Here is another example:

Passive: “The annual book price was won.”

Passive voice used in this way leaves readers with unanswered questions

Won by whom? The second statement eliminates the subject, leaving your readers with questions. Who exactly won the book price?

As a general rule, avoid passive voice if you want readers to pay attention to the subject.

Best Niches And Genres For Active Voice Use

We’ve already seen there are situations where active voice is ideal, and others where passive voice is the better option. It, therefore, comes as no surprise some book genres are more suited to each writing style.

Active voice is commonly used in romance novels

Book niches that are more suited to active voice include:

  • Thrillers depend on immediacy, which is more common in active voice sentences.
  • Juvenile fiction requires active voice statements because you are dealing with an audience that prefers simple sentences.
  • Romance novels, which depend on loads of dialogue, will sound more natural if conversations between characters are written in active voice.
  • Textbooks that aim to be easily understood will opt for more active voice sentences.

“My mother drove me to the airport with the windows rolled down.” – Stephenie Meyer, Twilight. Fiction and some non-fiction books always sound better when written in passive voice.

Best Niches & Genres For Passive Voice Use

While the average author might prefer to write using the active voice, some certain situations and genres call for passive voice. This is especially true if a book’s tone is supposed to come out sounding formal.

Authors writing in the following genres might prefer passive voice sentences:

  • Passive voice statements make characters in historic fiction novels sound like people from the time period being portrayed.
  • Historic non-fiction sounds more diplomatic and less accusatory if emphasis is placed on events [objects] and not persons [subjects].
  • Philosophy books sound more serious and gravitas when written using passive voice sentences.
  • Authors writing about sociopolitical events might opt for passive voice sentences to sound more objective.

“Just when I think I have learned the way to live, life changes.” – Hugh Prather, Notes to Myself: My Struggle to Become a Person. Passive voice is the way to go if you want to sound more objective, focus attention on objects, or emphasize how formal your writing is.

FAQs On Active Vs Passive Voice In Writing

What Is Active Voice?

This guide has largely dealt with understanding all the ways using the passive voice can go wrong. The active voice is the direct opposite of the passive voice. It is when sentences start with a subject and end with an object. See the above steps for detailed explanations of the difference between a subject and an object.

In active voice, the subject does something (verb) to the object.
The following are all examples of active voice:
“John kicks the ball.”
“Alex plays the piano.”
“Brandon Sanderson writes fiction books.”

Should Writers Use The Passive Voice Or Active Voice?

This will largely depend on the statement, and what the writer is trying to achieve with it. Writers wanting to avoid naming who performed an action for some reason, will use passive voice. Writers who want to be concise will use active voice sentences.

What Are The Pros Of Passive Voice?

That said, passive voice has its own pros. They include:

  • Passive voice sentences are great for suspense.
  • You can be diplomatic if you want to avoid mentioning a wrong-doer when you are using passive voice.
  • The passive voice is preferred in many academic circles.
  • Passive voice statements can remove the speaker/writer from the statement, which is sometimes useful in research writing.

What Are The Pros Of Active Voice?

Here are some active voice pros:

  • It is more immediate.
  • Active voice sentences result in shorter sentences.
  • Active voice statements tend to be clearer regarding who is performing action.
  • An active voice sentence forces the reader to focus on the subject.
  • Active voice is more natural, and resembles how people speak in ordinary conversations.

Conclusion: is active voice or passive voice the better choice?

Active voice and passive voice will determine how readers take in your words. In most cases, active voice is the way to go, especially with narrative and general public writing. Passive voice is your best friend if you want to put more emphasis on the object, or eliminate the subject entirely.

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