Active vs passive voice is all about verbs. A verb can have an active voice or a passive voice, and it’s generally better to choose the active.
The active voice makes the subject of a sentence perform the verb’s action. It makes a sentence more direct. It’s strong and more precise. The passive voice means the subject of the sentence is acted upon by the verb. This is an example of a passive sentence: “the subject of the sentence acts upon the verb.” To make it active, I must write “the verb acts upon the subject of the sentence,” but that doesn’t sound right.
Although the passive voice will sometimes be correct, the subject should generally drive the action, and this is what happens in active sentences. In passive sentences, the action happens to the person.
Take a look at this example of a passive sentence: “The marathon was run by the athlete.” It sounds unnatural and slow. The sentence improves by switching focus to the subject (the athlete) by placing it before the object (the marathon), like this: “The athlete ran the marathon.”
Running a marathon is an event that deserves action. But even a less inspiring example (a less active example) shows that the rule still applies. “The television was watched by him” is the passive version of, “He watched the television,” and it’s clear which sentence is better.
Sometimes, it isn’t obvious, though. Sentences with multiple clauses can get confusing, and the passive voice slips through. And sometimes, the passive voice is the right one to use.
Active vs Passive Voice: So, when should you use the passive voice?
Sometimes the subject is unknown or insignificant, and it sounds better to use the passive voice. “My phone was stolen” is passive, but we don’t know who stole it. And it sounds no worse than “Someone stole my phone.” The passive voice can be polite, too. “A mistake was made” adopts the passive voice to avoid targeting the one who made the mistake.
In The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Douglas Adams uses the passive voice to great effect, writing, “In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and has been widely regarded as a bad move.”
The universe was created. The creator’s identity doesn’t matter, which is the notable difference from the sentence in The Bible – In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth – and a deliberate move with an obvious intention by Adams, an atheist. And the passive voice is also used in the second sentence, instead of writing the active voice, which would be, “People regard this as a bad move.” and a lot less amusing.
Active vs Passive Voice can be a tricky subject for some writers, especially those who don’t use writing aids. I hope this post has made identifying the passive and active voice simple. Basically, write in the active voice every time unless you are writing in the passive for a particular reason. All writing advice follows this pattern. Follow the rules unless you improve your writing by not doing so.