Difference Between Active vs. Passive Voice – Short Explanation

Knowing when to use active or passive voice is paramount in the English language. Yet, it is still an area where many writers struggle – including those who have been speaking English since birth.

Growing up in the US education system, students are often told that they need to stay away from using passive voice because it is viewed as ‘lesser than’ or even ‘weak’. Yet, the decision between passive and active voice is actually rather nuanced.

Depending on the concept that you are attempting to convey, and the style of writing that you are following, there are times when passive voice can be considered appropriate, educated, and even the smarter choice between active and passive voice. None the less, the active voice will occasionally be the superior choice, and you might even find that you are using both active and passive voice in the same piece of writing. Of course, this will all depend on the content and context of your writing.

The following article should be seen as a guideline and examples to help you determine which is best: Active vs. Passive Voice.

Active versus Passive Voice –   Difference and Usage

At the very root, the active voice is used to place emphasis on the person (subject or agent) that is performing a specific action. Think of them as the ‘actor’. Whereas the passive voice places emphasis on the action that is being performed.

Example: 

Active Voice: The cat chased the yarn
Passive Voice: The yarn was being chased by the cat

In this very concise example, the active voice is the most appropriate choice. This is because it is more concise, and direct. In this instance, the passive voice is too wordy and seems clunky.

That being said, there are several examples where we are either unable or unwilling to place emphasis on the actor, this is especially true whenever there is an element of mystery or surprise involved.

Example:

Passive: My bike was stolen on Thursday afternoon.

In this example, the person speaking has no idea (or presumably has no idea) who has stolen their bike, therefore, the use of passive voice is ideal.

There is an active alternative, which in this case would be ‘Someone stole my bike on Thursday afternoon.’ However, this is a situation where the speaker likely wants to place emphasis on the object that was stolen and not the person who stole it.

You will notice that both passive examples mentioned above use a form of the verb ‘to be’ in the past form ‘was.’

This is referred to as an auxiliary (or helping) verb because it is used to help to finish a sentence. Essentially, you cannot say that ‘my bike was stolen on Thursday afternoon.’ These verbs are no necessarily required in active voice constructions, which is the driving reason behind people saying that active voice is far stronger and more concise than passive voice.

Now that we’ve determined the differences between active and passive voice, let’s review some more complex examples from academic or scientific writing – stations where it is reasonable to assume that active voice should take precedence, but that is not necessarily always the case.

Example:

Passive: The case studies were conducted by two professors who had no association with the school in Boston.
Active: Two professors who had no association with the school in Boston conducted the case studies.

In the example above, the writer wishes to place emphasis on the case studies, and how each was conducted. As such, the passive voice is deemed to be the most appropriate option. However, using an active voice would also have been correct.

Example:

Passive: PeopleSoft software was used for payroll
Active 1: We used PeopleSoft for payroll
Active 2: The compensation department used PeopleSoft for payroll

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In the example above, both of the active voice options have their own sets of problems.

The first option is grammatically sound, however, there are writers that prefer not to use first person. Selecting passive voice is the easiest way to avoid having to decide about using ‘we’ or not.

The second active voice option, which also uses the third person, is grammatically sound, however, it reads as slightly awkward. Similar to the first example. The writer has placed notable emphasis on the software choice, making the passive voice the most suitable.

Example:

Passive: This research was approved by the medical ethics committee at Western University
Active: The medical ethics committee of Western University approved this research

In this example, the writer has placed emphasis on the fact that the research was approved. This is a very valuable piece of information, easily more important than the body that was responsible for approval. In this case, the passive voice is the best option.

Example:

Passive: Jones petitioned that methods and guidelines by which medical students in Class 231B could be graded.
Active: The methods and guidelines by which medical students in Class 231B could be judged were petitioned by Jones.

Different from the examples that we’ve viewed thus far, in this specific instance, the active voice is the superior option. The methods and guidelines by which a student is grades seek to delineate those who put the most into their studies, which makes the subject important. In the example mentioned above, the active voice is much clearer and more concise than the passive voice.

As such, your decision to use active vs. passive voice might be dependent on which part of your paper you are writing. Each past of a paper (the introduction, the body, the conclusion) all has a different goal and objective, and a different set of emphasis. As the writer, it is your job to determine whether you should use the active voice or the passive voice and to adjust your writing style accordingly. For example, you might choose to use an active voice in your conclusion when you really want to place strong emphasis on the contributions or results of a study or your research.

Example

Active: This comparison of joblessness in the USA, Canada and Europe demonstrates that the country’s economic outlook can change drastically depending on the availability of suitable candidates for skilled positions.

Passive: In this comparison of joblessness in the USA, Canada and Europe, it is demonstrated that a country’s economic outlook can change drastically depending on the availability of suitable candidates for skilled positions.

In this example, the active voice is notably stronger and, therefore, the preferred choice. It is not only more concise, but it is also cleaner, and easier to understand.

There are situations where it is reasonable to use active voice and passive voice. It is up to you as the writer to determine what it is you are trying to place the strongest emphasis on (the actor or the action) and use that to decide whether or not you should be using an active or a passive voice.

Granted there are professors and academics who will attempt to plead their case for always using active voice, but that way of thinking is quickly going by the wayside.

If ever you want to convert a passive sentence to an active voice, here are some guidelines to help your conversion.

  • Pay attention to ‘by’ phrases (example: ‘by the cat’ in one of the examples above. If you find a ‘by’ phrase, the sentence is likely in passive voice. Rewrite this so that the subject in the ‘by’ clause is closer to the start of the sentence.
  • If the subject is unknown, determine whether or not you can use a generic term – like doctors or students.

When should you use a passive voice?

There are a few times when it makes the most sense to use a passive voice, instead of an active one. Here’s when:

  • When you want to place emphasis on the action and not the actor
  • When you want to keep the subject and the focus consistent throughout the written work
  • When you are trying to keep the actor anonymous
  • When you are trying to describe a situation or condition where the actor is not known
  • Whenever you are trying to establish an authoritative tone

For additional examples of active and passive voice, please visit: