Active vs. Passive Voice

Novelist George Orwell once said: "Never use the passive where you can use the active."  That advice still holds true today, and it’s an important distinction.  However, keep in mind that the "voice" of your verbs (active or passive) is different than the "tense" of your verbs.

  • Tense = action within time ("when" the verb happens—the present, past, or future)
  • Voice = relationship between subject and verb (who does what)

Active

Generally, active voice is preferred in non-scientific writing.  It will often make the meaning of your sentences clearer, and will keep them from becoming too complicated or overly-wordy.  Sentences using active voice are also often more concise because fewer words are necessary to convey the action—and, these sentences usually place the subject near the beginning of the sentence.

 Knowing this, it’s helpful to keep in mind the following basic guidelines regarding verbs:

  1. If the subject performs the action of the verb, that verb is "active." The tell the reader who is doing what.  They move the action and reveal the actors.
    1. Example: Richard climbed the few stairs and unlocked his door, then locked and bolted it behind him.
    2. Example: Jenny picked nervously at the soles of her shoes, ready to make her confession.

Passive

  1. If the subject receives the action of the verb, that verb is “passive.” Use passive verbs to call attention to the receiver/victim of the action.
    1. Example: His pale eyes were frosted with the sun glare. Here, the eyes received the action of the sun, so the subject receives the action of the verb.
    2. Example: The night was loaded with omens.

Linking

  1. Verbs that are neither active nor passive are "linking" verbs (a form of the verb "to be").
    1. Example: The purpose of this ritual is for men to learn the rules of power and competition.
    2. Example: It’s astonishing that they survive happily at all.

In most cases, the active voice (verb) is preferred.

Compare the following examples:

Example 1:

  • Passive: There were leaves all over the ground.
  • Active: Leaves covered the ground. (Much better. More concise and straightforward. Subject (leaves) moves toward the beginning the sentence.)

Example 2:

  • Passive: The entrance exam was failed by over one-third of the applicants.
  • Active: One-third of the applicants failed the entrance exam. (Again, the subject performs the action.)

Example 3:

  • Passive: It is believed by the candidate that a city budget must be enforced immediately.
  • Active: The candidate believes that a city budget must be enforced immediately. (Clearer, more concise.)