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The Difference Between Active and Passive Voice

The difference between active and passive voice can mean the difference between clear and direct writing, and vague and confusing writing. Keep reading to distinguish between these two styles.

Read the following sentence and tell me if the meaning is clear and direct:

The music was played in a manner most pleasing.

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So, what do you think?

I’m unsettled just writing that sentence, let alone having to read it multiple times! That sentence is a classic example of passive voice; it’s opaque and confusing and most certainly not direct.

Oddly enough, most of my students think that using language like that in the sentence above actually sounds smarter. And it’s not that they are always wrong; sometimes, passive voice is the appropriate choice. However, and this is a big however, passive voice is often a beginning writer’s default mode based on the notion that sentence complexity is directly correlated with sophistication and intelligence.

Oh no! That’s a writing instructor’s worst nightmare!

If you stop reading this blog post right now, I want you to walk away with the knowledge that passive voice should be used sparingly. Especially in professional writing, you should seek to be as clear and direct as possible.

The rest of this blog post will answer the following:

  • What is active voice, and how are active voice and passive voice different?
  • Why is one preferred over the other?
  • How can I check myself to make sure I am using the right style?

Hopefully, you will see that passive voice should not be your default mode for writing, but there may be times when it is appropriate. Let’s start with the opposite of passive voice: active voice.

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What is active voice?

Active voice is direct. That sentence (and this one) is an example of active voice. There’s a clear subject, a verb, and an object. Active voice is so clear that it often (inaccurately) gets conflated to mean “simple” or “unintelligent.” Since it’s the way that most individuals first learn how to structure a sentence, people tend to balk at the structure as juvenile.

Let’s take the following sentence for starters:

I wrote a book.

Yes, this is a simple sentence, but we are going to use it for illustrative purposes.

  1. In the above sentence, there is a clear subject, “I.” “I” is doing all the action here.
  2. Next, we have a clear verb, “wrote.”
  3. Finally, we have a clear object, “book.” What did I write? A book.

There’s no confusion here, which is why active voice is a fantastic style choice if you are looking to be clear.

But lest you think that active voice means that all your sentences must be short and choppy, look at these literary examples. Fantastic writers use active voice, so why shouldn’t you be among them?

What are the differences between active and passive voice?

I strongly believe that grammar is best taught through intuition. So, let’s revisit the first sentence I showed you:

The music was played in a manner most pleasing.

Compare that sentence to the following:

The musicians played in a very pleasing manner.

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What do you notice to be the differences between the two?

Here are two things I notice:

  1. In the first sentence, I’m not quite sure who is playing the music. Who is the subject?
  2. The first sentence has slightly more words.

Passive voice is, on the whole, a sentence where the object comes before the subject, if a subject comes at all. Therefore, the action in the sentence is obscured. Because an active voice allows your reader to make fewer inferences, it is the preferred stylistic choice for professional writing.

Now, if you’ve been reading this blog post carefully, you will notice that there are times where I slip into passive voice; it happens! I could go into a rant about grammar rules, but I will instead leave that to Fresh Air and The New Yorker. But the important thing is to recognize that passive voice should not be the dominant style in your professional writing.

How can I check to make sure I am using the right style?

Again, there are times when passive voice may be appropriate. But, the rule of thumb in professional writing is that you should try to avoid it.

Here’s a check that I always gave my students. If you write a sentence, and it can be followed with the phrase “by zombies” and still make sense, you are using passive voice and you should edit!

Let’s revisit (for the last time, I promise) that first sentence I gave you:

The music was played in a manner most pleasing.

Does the sentence still make sense if we add the phrase ‘by zombies’ to the end?

The music was played in a manner most pleasing by zombies.

Yup. It’s passive voice.

What about the active voice example I gave you:

The musicians played in a very pleasing manner by zombies.

Does that make sense? Nope. It’s a good sign, then, that the sentence is not in passive voice.

Use this check when you are writing your resume, cover letters, and professional emails; your reader will thank you!

P.S. Become a better writer. Find out more here.

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