Active and Passive Voice
Grammatical voice is a property of verbs in English. It can take two forms, either active or passive. Using the active voice emphasises the person or thing that is doing the action of the verb. The passive voice, by contrast, emphasises the recipient or the effect of the action.
In school education, children are often taught that they should use the active voice in their writing, because it is ‘stronger’. Many academic journals also encourage the use of the active voice, generally coupled with the first person (we or I). However, there is a time and a place for the passive voice. This page explains the two, and provides some examples to show when you might choose each one in writing and in speech.
Understanding Active and Passive Voice
At its simplest the distinction between active and passive voice is:
The active voice emphasises the person or thing doing the action.
The passive voice emphasises the recipient of the action.
In the active voice, the subject of the sentence is the person or thing doing the verb action.
In the passive voice, the subject of the sentence is the recipient of the action.
For more about the subject and object of a sentence, see our page Grammar: An Introduction.
As so often with grammar, this is easiest to understand with examples.
Examples of active and passive voice
- A dog chased me down the road.
- A car ran over the ball.
- We sent out questionnaires between April and July.
In all these sentences, the subject is the first noun (a dog, a car, we). All these are doing the action set out by the verb (chasing, running over, sending out).
- I was chased down the road by a dog.
- The ball was run over by a car.
- The questionnaires were sent out between April and July.
In these sentences, the subject is again the first noun (I, the ball, the questionnaires), but in this case, the subjects are having the action done to them (chasing, running over, sending out).
Looking at these sentences, you may also notice another distinguishing feature of the use of the passive voice: the inclusion of was or were, and the introduction of a preposition (by).
This is often the most obvious sign that you have used the passive voice.
Using the Active and Passive Voice
You should use the active voice when:
1. You want to emphasise the person or thing doing the verb action.
For example, you might write ‘The dog chased the thief all the way down the road’. In this sentence, you are emphasising the dog’s actions. You might, for example, wish to show the dog’s value in guarding your property.
However, if you wanted to emphasise the thief, and how they were punished for their actions, you might say ‘The thief was chased all the way down the road by the dog!’.
Note that this is a bit more long-winded, and many people would therefore prefer the active voice in this example.
The importance of voice in crisis communications
The active voice may be particularly important in business communications when you are facing a crisis. Using the active voice makes clear that you (you personally, or the company) are actively trying to do something. When you use the passive voice, this is less clear. Consider these two examples:
“We do not yet know what happened, but we are trying to find out. As soon as we know more, we will be in touch to let you know.”
“A problem has occurred, but it is not clear how. Action is being taken to find out, and more information will be provided when it is available.”
The first one emphasises that the organisation is taking responsibility for the event, and taking action to address it. The second one is much weaker, and sounds like the organisation may be trying to avoid taking responsibility.
2. You want a shorter, more concise sentence, or to sound more direct.
The active voice generally results in shorter sentences, because of the requirement to use ‘was’ or ‘were’ in passive sentences. You may also need more prepositions in passive sentences.
The active voice therefore looks more concise and direct.
3. When the passive voice sounds ‘clunky’ or just plain ‘wrong’
Almost every sentence can be put in either the passive or active voice. However, in some cases, the passive voice will simply sound wrong.
Consider the sentence “I walked to the park”. In the passive voice, the sentence would be:
“The park was walked to by me”.
This is very ‘clunky’, because of the need to introduce ‘by’ to make it work. It is also unnatural, because you are unlikely to want to emphasise the park, rather than you, in speech or writing.
Generally speaking, the active voice sounds more direct. It is therefore often preferred in both speech and writing. However, there are times when you may prefer to use the passive voice, and it may even be more correct.
You should use the passive voice when:
1. You want to emphasise the recipient of the action.
For example, the sentence ‘My house was broken into last night!’ is in the passive voice.
In this case, the writer may want to emphasise the fact that it was their house that was broken into, or the impact on them. The sentence structure also emphasises that the writer does not know who broke in.
The alternative, in the active voice, would be ‘Someone broke into my house last night!’. This is also acceptable, but perhaps less emphatic about the impact on the writer.
Similarly, the two sentences ‘I was chased by a dog’ and ‘A dog chased me’ have slightly different connotations. In the first one, you are emphasising the impact on you. In the second, you are emphasising the actions of the dog.
2. When the person doing the action is unknown.
The example above about the housebreaker is an obvious one: you do not know who broke in, so you can either say ‘someone’ or use the passive voice. This lack of knowledge strengthens the use of the passive voice.
3. When you wish to avoid giving information about the person doing the action, particularly in academic writing
In academic writing, it was previously conventional to use the passive voice. Researchers would write sentences like:
“The reagents were mixed together, and the outcome was observed and recorded every 10 minutes.”
This avoided saying “Fred mixed the reagents together, and Nancy observed the outcome and recorded it every 10 minutes”. This is because the reader did not really need to know which of the researchers had carried out each bit of every experiment. It therefore avoids giving any detail about who precisely did the work.
However, many academic journals now encourage the use of the active voice. Researchers now write either:
“We mixed the reagents…” or
“The researchers mixed the reagents...”
The precise wording depends on the journal’s preference for first or third person.
There is more about first and third person in our page on Improving Grammar
A Time and a Place
It is important to emphasise that there is nothing wrong with using either passive or active voice.
Generally speaking, either will be acceptable in English—unless, of course, one sounds very awkward. The active voice is generally preferred under most circumstances, because it is usually shorter and more direct. However, there is a time and a place for the passive, especially if you want to emphasise the importance of the recipient of a verb action.