Thompson Rivers University

Active vs. Passive Voice

  Posted on: September 22, 2016

Active vs. Passive Voice

By Jessica Messerer-Trosin and Chris Lindsay

Knowing the difference between the active and passive voice can have a positive impact on your writing.

In active sentences, the subject of the sentence is doing the action to the object.

For example: Katrina finished the history assignment.

In passive sentences, the thing receiving the action becomes the subject.

For example: The essay was written by Katrina.

In the above example, the subject of the sentence is the essay. But Katrina is doing the action.

Sentences written in the active voice are often easier to understand because they are easier to visualize.

Writing in the passive voice can sometimes sound awkward and unclear, while at the same time being wordy.

However, the passive voice can be effective if you want to create a sense of mystery in your sentence or focus on the receiver of the action rather than the doer.  It is also effective if you do not know who did the action.

A news story might say, “The bank was robbed last night”, rather than “Someone robbed the bank last night.” The focus is on the bank, rather than the unknown person who robbed it.

Another use of the passive voice is to take the focus off of the person who did something, a tactic sometimes used in the media or by a politician. For academic writing – and especially for business writing – it is much better to use the active voice because the message will be clear to the reader.

If you’re not sure whether the sentence is active or passive, one clue is to look for the words “…was ___ by…”. This will often be the passive voice.

A common error is that sentences that contain the verb “to be” are in the passive voice, but that isn’t always true. For example, the sentence “I am walking the dog” is in active voice, but it uses the verb “am,” which is a form of “to be.” The passive form of that sentence is “The dog is being walked by me.”

zombies passive vs active

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