Updated May 2023
Many writers are confused by the terms active and passive voice. Contrary to their sound, the terms have nothing to do with the tense of verbs. Rather, they refer to the performer of the action in a sentence. While most creative writers shy away from using the passive voice, this does not mean that passive sentences equate to incorrect grammar usage. This article will teach you the difference between the two voices and how to use them properly in sentences in your writing.
What is an active voice sentence? The subject of the sentence performs the action.
Example of active voice: A member of the high school’s National Honor Society planted trees in the park.
Here, the subject of the sentence, member, is performing the action, planted.
What is a passive voice sentence? The subject becomes the receiver of the action.
Example of passive voice: The tree was planted in the park by a member of the high school’s National Honor Society.
This time, the subject, tree, is not performing the action. Instead, it is the receiver of the action. A clue that this is a passive voice sentence can be found in the prepositional phrase that occurs at the end (by a member of the high school’s National Honor Society). Many passive voice sentences contain prepositional phrases beginning with by.
Consider the following sentences. Are they active or passive?
1. Gleefully stomping in the puddles, the little boy ran down the sidewalk.
2. The band was applauded by the audience.
3. The story is being written by a member of the historical society.
4. The robin, searching the sky for its mate, perched on a branch of the pine tree.
The first and fourth sentences are active voice sentences. In each, the subject is performing the action of the verb—the boy is doing the running, and the robin is doing the perching.
The second and third sentences are passive. In each, the subject of the sentence is the receiver of the action. To check, simply look at the sentence and ask yourself if the subject is performing the action. In the second sentence, is the band doing the applauding? No, so that sentence is passive. In the third sentence, is the story doing the writing? No. That sentence is also passive.
How to make passive sentences into active sentences
To make these sentences active, simply rewrite them so that the subject performs the action. In sentence two, the audience is doing the applauding, so in the active voice, the sentence should read: The audience applauded the band. In the third sentence, the performer of the action is a member of the historical society, so we can rewrite the sentence as follows: A member of the historical society is writing the story. (Notice that in both cases the subject is found within the prepositional phrase.)
Consider the following sentence. Is it active or passive?
5. Problems were solved.
Since the problems aren’t doing the solving, we know that this sentence is passive. To make it active, simply add an appropriate subject. For example, the sentence could be rewritten to read: We solved the problems. Now the sentence is active because the subject, we, is doing the solving.
Is active voice always preferable? Not necessarily. Active voice sentences are usually more forceful and precise, and if you want to emphasize the subject, you should use active voice. However, passive voice is best if you want to call attention to the receiver of the action. For example, consider this sentence:
6. The President of the United States was shot by an unknown gunman.
Clearly, this sentence is passive—the subject, President of the United States, is receiving the action rather than performing it. However, in this case, the passive voice is preferable to the active voice since the receiver of the action is more important than the performer of the action. Making the sentence active would delay getting the most important information to the reader.
Both active and passive voice sentences are useful in writing, and understanding the difference between them is helpful in creating clear, strong prose. If you are trying to get your creative writing published, we suggest experimenting with various sentence structures to find what does and does not work. At Writer’s Relief, we target literary journals and book agents for your particular style of writing.