Feb 15

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Active voice vs passive voice

I recently had someone ask me slightly sheepishly what the term “active voice” means.

It’s not a silly question – depending on when you were at high school, you might never have learned grammar like that. So here’s a potted guide in plain English (EVERYTHING can be written in plain English, even grammar!).

“Active voice” and “passive voice” refer to the way a verb is used in a sentence.  In the active voice, someone does something.  In the passive voice, someone has something done to them.  For instance:

  • Gillian eats the sandwiches.   [active]
  • Gillian is given a surprise.   [passive]

In the active sentence, we know who the “actor” is – it’s Gillian who is doing the eating.  In the passive sentence, that information can be hidden – we know that Gillian got a surprise, but we don’t know who gave her that surprise.

The passive voice is useful when you don’t know who’s doing something, or when you want to emphasise the person (or thing) that has it done to them.  But it is often less clear than the active voice because information tends to remain obscure.  Think about these two sentences, which both describe the same situation – the active sentence contains information which is missing from the passive one:

  • Mark used up the sticky tape yesterday.   [active]
  • The sticky tape was all used up yesterday.   [passive]

To clarify who used up the sticky tape, you need to add in extra words: “The sticky tape was all used up yesterday by Mark” now conveys the same information as the active voice version, but uses nearly 50% more words.

As a broad generalisation, writing in the passive voice tends to be more wordy and less direct.  In many cases, wordy sentences in the passive voice can be vastly improved by re-writing in the active.  Here are some examples:

  • It is requested that women’s arms be covered.  [TWO passive verbs – “it is requested” and “be covered”]
    We ask women to cover their arms.  [active voice]
    Women must cover their arms.   [a significant re-wording; very different from the passive version]
  • Applications are required to be delivered to the Promotions Officer.   [again, two passive verbs]
    Please deliver your application to the Promotions Officer.   [active]
  • It is suggested that three conclusions can be drawn from the data.   [again, two passive verbs]
    We draw three conclusions from the data.   [active]

The passive voice is not necessarily bad.  Sometimes it’s necessary if you don’t know (or don’t want to emphasise) who’s doing the verb.  Sometimes it feels more natural than the active voice.  The last example is a good one – the main problem is the wordiness rather than the passive voice.  “Three conclusions can be drawn from the data” would be a perfectly acceptable re-write, even though it’s still in the passive.

Some people won’t agree with that view and would avoid the passive at all costs.  Go on, enter the fray – what’s your view?

Permanent link to this article: http://wordsmadeclear.com/2012/02/15/active-voice-vs-passive-voice/


  1. Cliff Tyllick

    I’ve found an effective way to teach the passive voice—at least to folks who are familiar with the game Clue.

    The passive voice leaves us where we are at the beginning of the game. We know what happened, and to whom it happened, but not who did it:

    “Mr. Boddy was murdered.”

    “This form must be completed and submitted.”

    If what and to whom (or to what) are all that matters, then the passive voice is fine.

    But if your audience needs to know who did (or should do) whatever is going on, then passive voice leaves them clueless. So finish the game for them. Quit hiding whodunnit:

    “Colonel Mustard murdered Mr. Boddy.”

    “You must complete this form and send it to us.”

    Presented that way, they tend to get it. (Hmm… I wonder if I can make playing a game of Clue a prerequisite to our plain language training?)

  2. Doug Winter

    Although the passive voice is pretty clear, people do seem to keep finding it where it doesn’t exist. Take this example from language log:


    Even Strunk and White, may they rot in hell, fail to identify the passive correctly in their own bloody book:

    William Strunk and E. B. White assert that “Many a tame sentence . . . can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice” (see section 14 of their book The Elements of Style). Their sentence defies their warning; it contains an instance of the passive voice itself (can be made lively and emphatic). They then proceed to give four examples together with illustrations of how to improve them “by substituting a transitive in the active voice”, but only one illustrates the passive (it is not quite clear whether they thought all four were passives), and for one of them, At dawn the crowing of a rooster could be heard, they propose the replacement The cock’s crow came with dawn, which (since came is intransitive) does not have a transitive in the active voice!

    (The above is from Language Log’s list of posts about the passive voice).

    What seems to be actually complained about when people assert that “the passive voice is bad” is that ones writing should be more exciting. This is nothing to do with grammar and is all to do with composition!

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