Active and Passive Voice – Usage and Difference

Typically, a sentence is thought to be in passive voice whenever the subject of that sentence is the object that is being acted on. On the other hand, a sentence is considered to be in active voice when the subject is doing the active. Throughout the twentieth century, passive voice was prominent in scientific or academic writing; nevertheless, there has been a dominant shift in agreement as of late.

Many of the leading writing style guides (APA, etc.) champion the use of active voice for conciseness and clarity. It is the belief of scholars that passive voice, in general, results in writing that is not only flat, but also insinuates the evasion of responsibility in all written forms.

Interestingly, many academics have proven that active voice was preferred up until the start of the twentieth century when objectivity grew in popularity. In a world that is largely represented by ‘things’ and ‘objects’ passive voice result in confusion and result in readers losing sight of the significance of a prose that is subjugated by objects and things. All told, in written communication, divided views become irrelevant and it is necessary to achieve balance by using active and passive voice.

According to the APA, verb tenses and voices must be used carefully. Writers must try to avoid reluctance whenever they are utilizing the active voice – particularly when there is significant discussion, or anywhere that it is important to express that they are assuming specific things or where assessments occur.

Sentences and paragraphs that are written in active voice are considered easier to understand than those that are written using a passive voice. Transitioning from passive voice to active voice is fairly candid, however, some practice is required. In the example section below, you will make note that the tense of the verb to be in the passive voice is always identical to the tense of the main verb in the active voice. To effectively use that active voice, you must make the subject of the action obvious.

Active and Passive Voice – A Brief Explanation

The form of verb that indicates whether the person or object (the subject) of a sentence does something or has had something done to them is referred to as the voice. This voice can either be passive or active.

For example, when a sentence has only a single auxiliary verb, like are, am, been, be, and also has a past participle of verbs, like written, drawn, learned or broken, that sentence is considered to be in passive voice.

What changes sentences from active to passive voice?

There are a few rules to keep in mind when changing sentences from active to passive form.

  1. The sentence needs to have objects (transitive verbs).
  2. The object of an active sentence becomes the subject of a passive sentence.
  3. The verb used is a past participle, which will be preceded by to be.

What is Active Voice?

In the majority of English sentences that have an action verb, the subject or object that is performing the action will be denoted by the verb.

Here are a few examples that show that the subject is the one doing the verb’s action.

Examples:

The girl has eaten seven apples.
The girl (subject) is doing the eating (verb.)

Sonya mailed the postcard.
Sonya (subject) is doing the mailing (verb)

Wild horses live in the plains.
Horses (subject) are doing the living (verb.)

Since the subjects do the action in the above examples, they are considered to be in active voice.

What is Passive Voice?

Passive voice, on the other hand, is what occurs when the normal word order of an active sentence changes so that the subject is no longer active, but is, now being acted on by the verb.

Referring back to the examples above, let’s look at what happens when the subject and verb relationship changes.

Examples:

Five apples must be eaten by the girl
Apples (subject) are being eaten (verb.)

The postcard was mailed by Sonya
The postcard (subject) was being mailed (verb.)

Since the subject is being acted on – or is passive – these types of sentences are referred to as passive voice.

Wild horse live in the plains cannot be changed to a passive sentence because there is no direct object in the sentence.

Whenever you are attempting to change something from an active to a passive voice, you need to:

  1. Take the active sentence’s direct object and place it where the sentence’s subject was.
  2. Put the active sentence’s subject into a phrase starting with the preposition
  3. Add some form of auxiliary verb (be) to the main verb and change the main form of the verb.

Since sentences with passive voice add words out of necessity and also change the standard doer-action-receiver of action direction, they might make it more challenging for the reader to understand the intended purpose or meaning of the sentence.

Active and Passive Voice Examples

TENSEACTIVE VOICEPASSIVE VOICEACTIVE SENTENCEPASSIVE EQUIVALENT
Simple presentkeepIs keptI keep the socks in my top drawerThe socks are kept in the top drawer
Present continuousIs keepingIs being keptSally is keeping the porch sweptThe porch is being swept
Simple pastkeptWas keptJoan kept or schedule clearJoan’s schedule was clear
Past continuousWas keepingWas being keptThe teacher was keeping a desk for youA desk was being kept for you
Present perfectHave keptHave beenI have kept all of your old shoesYour old shoes have been kept
Past perfectHad keptHad been keptShe had kept up with her running for three monthsHer running had been kept up for three months
Simple futureWill keepWill be keptJill will keep the carThe car will be kept
Conditional presentWould keepWould be keptIf I had known, I would keep the dogIf I had known, the dog would be kept
Conditional pastWould have keptWould have been keptI would have kept your clothes if you had left them hereYour clothes would have been kept if you had left them here
Present infinitiveTo keepTo be keptHe wants to keep the recordThe record wants to be kept
Perfect infinitiveTo have keptTo have been keptJill was happy to have kept the catThe cat was happy to have been kept
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Key Takeaways

In a sentence with active voice, the subject is the one performing the action that is stated by the verb. In a sentence with passive voice, the subject is the one that is being acted on by the verb. Here are a few examples of both.

The following are examples of sentences that have been written using both active and passive voice. The sentence using active voice appears first, the sentence using passive voice follows.

Julia ate pasta for lunch (active)
At lunch, pasta was eaten by Julia (passive)

Giant elephants roam the safari (active)
The safari is roamed by giant elephants (passive)

Kyle changes the lightbulb (active)
The lightbulb was changed by Kyle (passive)

We are going to see a concert tomorrow (active)
A concert is going to be seen by us tomorrow (passive)

I ran the race in record time (active)
The race was run by me in record time (passive)

The construction workers built the entire house (active)
The entire house was built by construction workers (passive)

She mailed her application for college (active)
The application for college was mailed by her (passive)

Joe painted the fence (active)
The fence was painted by Joe (passive)

The baker baked one dozen cupcakes (active)
One dozen cupcakes were baked by the baker (passive)

Donald Trump is signing the amendment change (active)
The amendment change is being signed by Donald Trump (passive)

The maid washes the floor and the windows every week (active)
Every week the floor and windows are washed by the maid (passive)

Molly will bake a cake for the school bake sale (active)
For the school  bake sale, Molly will bake a cake (passive)

Who ate the sandwich (active)
The sandwich was eaten by whom (passive)

The dance instructor will give you lesson (active)
The lessons will be given by the dance instructor (passive)

The team will celebrate their win next week (active)
The win will be celebrated by the team next week (passive)

She will graduate high school on Tuesday (active)
On Tuesday, she will graduate high school (passive)

The above referenced sentences demonstrate who the same sentence can sound different when written in either active or passive voice. Typically, it is advisable for writers to write in active voice since it is more concise and easier to understand. This is especially true for academic or scientific writing or when gendered language needs to be avoided. Passive voice is often wordier, but can still  be useful in certain situations.