“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
― Toni Morrison

Active vs. Passive Voice: The Complete Guide

You’ve probably heard people decry the use of the passive voice. “Avoid it at all costs!” they say. That’s a little misleading; the passive voice isn’t always bad.

passive voice

However, you must understand what it is and learn to recognize it so you can choose how to use it effectively.

What Is Active Voice?

A sentence in the active voice is structured traditionally: subject + verb + object.

Beth stubbed her toe.

John will love this pie.

People sometimes hate country music.

In each of these sentences, the subject does the action of the verb, and the object of the sentence receives that action. Beth, the subject, does the stubbing. Her toe receives the stubbing (and hurts a lot).

(If this explanation is clear as mud, brush up on subjects and objects here.)

What Is Passive Voice?

The opposite of the active voice is the passive voice.

A sentence is in the passive voice when the word that is the recipient of the action is the subject of the sentence.

Let’s use the passive voice in our examples from above:

The toe was stubbed by Beth.

This pie will be loved by John.

Country music is sometimes hated.

Now, the nouns receiving the actions are the subjects of these sentences. Instead of thinking about Beth, now we’re focusing on her toe. Instead of thinking about John, we’re focusing on the pie. Instead of considering the opinions of some people, we’re focusing on country music.

Note that in each sentence, there is a form of to be + a past participle. That’s a dead giveaway that the sentence is in passive voice.

When to Use Active Voice

As a general rule, you should use active voice whenever possible. Active voice has a few advantages over passive voice.

It’s bold. “Beth stubbed her toe” is more clear, direct, and interesting than “The toe was stubbed by Beth.” Get straight to the point and engage your readers with active voice.

It’s precise. “Country music is sometimes hated” conveys less information than “People sometimes hate country music.” You could expand it to say “Country music is sometimes hated by people,” but that makes the sentence more clunky. Just use active voice.

It’s succinct. Sentences in active voice are often shorter than their passive-voice counterparts. Cut the fluff and tighten your prose with active voice.

When to Use Passive Voice

That said, you’ll encounter occasions in your writing when the passive voice is actually a better choice than the active voice. Here are three times you should use passive voice:

1. When you don’t know who did the action

If you don’t know who did the action, it’s difficult to use the active voice.

The plate didn’t fall on its own—it was dropped on the floor.

But who dropped the plate? No one knows.

2. When the person who did the action isn’t important

If it’s not helpful for your readers to know who performed the action, use the passive voice and don’t mention them.

In this experiment, the eggs were placed in vinegar overnight.

The experiment with the eggs is the important bit; mentioning the person who did it would be distracting.

3. When you want your readers to focus on the object of the action

If the main point of the sentence is the noun that receives the action, use the passive voice to foreground it.

All the fruit in the pantry is covered in mold.

The focus in this sentence is on the fruit, not the mold. (Although if you were standing in that pantry, your focus would probably be on the mold.)

It’s a Style Choice

Ultimately, both active voice and passive voice are grammatically correct. Determining which to use comes down to your own style choices.

As you edit, consider what you want your readers to focus on and how you want them to engage with your writing. You’ll find some instances where passive voice is actually the best choice.

Remember, though, to use the passive voice in moderation, as too much of it is exhausting to read.

When do you use passive voice? Let me know in the comments.

PRACTICE

Take fifteen minutes to write about a major historical event, either as an observer or an active participant. Use the passive voice in your writing to describe the action.

Post your practice in the comments, and leave notes for your fellow writers.

About Liz Bureman

Liz Bureman has a more-than-healthy interest in proper grammatical structure, accurate spelling, and the underappreciated semicolon. When she's not diagramming sentences and reading blogs about how terribly written the Twilight series is, she edits for the Write Practice, causes trouble in Denver, and plays guitar very slowly and poorly. You can follow her on Twitter (@epbure), where she tweets more about music of the mid-90s than writing.

  • The passive voice should be avoided by you. 😉

  • taylorLmorris

    I don’t really understand the ‘passive voice’ thing. Is this correct?

    We are shuffled into a compact line; sweaty bodies are rubbed up against each other; children’s cries have pierced the air; guards fire off their guns into groups of the disobedient. I traced the now faded Star of David with my finger in attempt to keep my mind off things that I knew would inevitably come.

    “Joann! Joanna!” I heard my little sister, Carolyn, yell out through the remorseful crowd in search of me. I felt a small hand wrap around my fingers. I patted Carolyn’s head and tried to wipe away some of the dust that had matted her face. “Shh…” I comforted her as she buried her face into my side, “It’ll all be over soon.

    Carolyn looked up at me in disbelief and shook her head, “I know  we’re all going to die!” she yelled over the quiet crowd. Heads quickly snapped in our direction, lips pulled into grimaces and eyebrows knot in anger. I placed a hand over Carolyn’s mouth and got down on one knee so I was face to face with her. “I’m pretty sure you don’t know the future, dear, so don’t try to make it up for yourself.”

    • When I think of passive voice I always think, “The ball was kicked by her” rather than “She kicked the ball.” Does that help?
      Katie

    • “We are shuffled into a compact line” is in passive voice. After that I didn’t pay attention. I don’t really examine the small stuff when I read or write. (I’m hoping to use that as a strength, rather than a weakness.)

      A for your story, I found it compelling. Makes me want to read more.

  • I’ve never been too sure about passive voice and how to detect it, but here’s my attempt.

    Lieutenant John Wellesly looked across the field and let his eyes zigzag along the line of defense that was established by the Confederates. He could see where the road had been scorched by the fires from previous camp sites. He took out his canteen and took a long swig of warm water and brushed his sleeve across his lips as he had a vision of the battle that was looming.

    Exercises had been conducted yesterday in by the artillery unit so they would know how to aim their cannon, but the men who would fight the actual battle stayed in camp. Wellesly thought that it would have been better if all the units had been involved in the exercise. He worried that there would be a disaster so large it would be remembered for hundreds of years.

    Lt. Wellesly checked the crude map General Meade’s assistant gave him yesterday. He would have to find an escape route in case the Confederates broke through his lines. To his east he saw Devil’s Den, and to the west, Culp’s Hill, but he thought that Cemetery Hill would be most important to him because it was directly behind his men.

    It was cool and clear on the morning of July 1, 1863 as Lt. Wellesly checked his map again. He worried about what the day would bring.

    • Marianne Vest

      The passive voice gives this a kind of ominous inevitable seriousness.

    • It’s hard to actively inject passive voice in your story (at least for me) but you were able to do it here 🙂

      The story made me want to know more about what happened next. Great writing Angelo 🙂

    • I agree with mariannehvet; your use of the passive voice speaks of impending doom. It does make me want to read more.

  • Carey Rowland

    The position is generally held among wordsmiths that any statement is weakened by use of the passive voice. However, this position was not held by Thomas Jefferson; nor was any passivating of the Monticellan’s verb usage rejected when the final draft of the Declaration of Independence was approved in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776. For the fledgeling colonies’ prosperity and free enterprise had been stifled for too long by King George with his exploitative taxes and the many other oppressive burdens with which the Americans had been burdened for, lo, those many years.
    So finally, during the hot summer of that fateful year, the bond was broken between Britain and America, and the feisty yankees were at last set apart from that cruel limey monarch and his wiggy lackeys. Good riddance was then celebrated by all on this side of the pond, except the hegemonious Brits of course.
    No, let it not be wagged among the opinions of mankind that the Americans were kept as clueless servants of a tyrant king! They were no longer kept as passive vassals, and gone forever were their massive hassles; well, maybe for a while anyway, until was heard among the ears of men that musket shot heard round the world, and the Betsy’s stars and stripes were very soon unfurled!

    • Marianne Vest

      Boy you got a lot of passive verbs in there.

    • kevinshaabi

      I like the banter in the language, and the clever rhymes!

  • Marianne Vest

    JFK’s funeral was one of the most heartbreaking things I’ve ever watched on TV His coffin was carried on a horse-drawn caisson to the Capitol where he lay in state. Jackie Kenned, holding a child with each hand, could be seen walking toward the coffin and then kneeling beside it. I felt so sorry for her and for those young children. The saddest image was of little John, just a toddler at the time, saluting his father. That family has suffered, in my lifetime, more than should be any family’s quota.

  • I don’t know if I did the practice right but I hope you’ll still enjoy my story 🙂

    ***

    We were sixteen and awkward. Seated on top of the rooftop of an abandoned house, we watched fat clouds drifting by. Too afraid to turn my head and look, I tried to watch Ayako by the corner of my eye. Her smooth, pale skin a complete contrast to her night, black hair. She was quiet; she had always been the quiet type, as her eyes followed a cloud overhead. Then I saw her turn and look at me and I quickly looked away. It must have been too obvious because I heard her giggle. I looked at her with an embarrassed smile.

    In front of us, the city of Hiroshima lay sprawled. People were moving on its surface like busy ants getting ready for the winter. Soldiers were scattered here and there. It was a normal day save for the fact that this was the day I’ll confess to Ayako. I gathered all my courage and I reviewed the tips given to me by my mom.

    I looked at Ayako and I cleared my throat. Smiling, she looked at me. But before I could say something to her, something caught my eye. It was something falling leaving behind it a streak of red fire. I laid a hand on Ayako’s and I pointed at the sky.

    “What’s that?” I heard her say.

    I shrugged my shoulders and I stood up. It kept on falling, like some sort of wishing star. Below us, we heard the screams and the sirens and the barking of commands. The star finally kissed the land of Hiroshima and the city violently shook.

    Beside me, Ayako let out a cry. I pulled her up and I shouted to her to run. We did. We ran down the roof and down the streets like hell and all of its demons were chasing us—which I really thought was happening at that time, we were being chased by hell. I could feel its fire licking our backs.

    We ran.

    I heard Ayako say something but her voice was overpowered by the roaring of the flames and the cries of the city and its people. I turned around to look at her but she was no longer there. My hand was holding nothing.

    I mouthed her name.

    I stopped.

    Hell caught up with me and I felt my body burn.

    Ayako?

    • I cried reading this. I confess, I didn’t pay attention to what was active or passive voice. I don’t really do that when I write, either.

      As for doing the practice “right,” there is no right or wrong way to practice. The goal of these practice exercises should be to get us writing, not the specifics of how we do or do not go about it. You wrote. Mission accomplished.

  • Marianne.

    It was the day the battle of Gettysburg began. Pretty serious stuff. I’m glad you found some passive voice, I tried to get it in there but wasn’t sure if I was successful or not. Passive voice is still a mystery to me.

    • Marianne Vest

      I know it’s confusing. I can recognize it but have trouble deliberately creating it. I’m glad it’s not popular. I’ve been to the Gettysburg Battlegrounds. Those were brave men.

  • Yvette Carol

    The Maori warriors had been hidden in the bush on the edge of town since nightfall. They watched as the British soldiers camp fires were put out one by one. Hone Heke, their faithful leader, having struck the flagpole once before, knew the lay of the land. He could see that more guards had been put on watch since the last time. The town had gone quiet. The tavern had long since closed its doors and the last drunk wandered home. Then Hone Heke whistled. Two of his warriors crept out and used their greenstone clubs to dispatch the guards before a single word was said. That night, the Union Jack fluttered above the Maori heads like a goodbye wave. Then the great flagpole came crashing down to the ground with a reverberating thump that was heard even on the far edges of town. And the Maori war party melted back into the night.

    • Nice. Wish it was a a bit longer though. 🙂

    • Much more interesting than any of the history texts I read in school. Wish I had a context for it. Since the Louisiana public school system used history texts written by committees, I never had an interest in history, with the result that I am historically illiterate.

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  • Kathy Brady

     Going back to copying other writers: I learned when studying art, that if you copy the work of a great painter, consistently, you will effect changes in your own brain that will be similar to the painter you are copying and thus help you to do work of a similar style. I imagine this is like copying the style of another writer. INTERESTING!

  • mark

    good article
    i just sat a lingustics exam and was wondering if I had gotten this right, which I did

    but you didnt mention what passive voice means semantically

  • Geovanne .Navalta

    Now, I clearly understand the difference between passive and active voice. I will not be afraid to use them both, but I always make sure that whenever necessary I will use active voice. If I really need to use passive voice and I don’t have other options but to use it, I will use it for the sake of the article I am writing.

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  • TerriblyTerrific

    Oh, I see now. I believe I use more of the “Active”voice. Much easier.

    • Indeed – it’s a “cleaner” solution, so to speak 🙂

      • TerriblyTerrific

        Agreed.

  • Passive voice can be useful to convey helplessness, hopelessness – whenever we want our readers to feel a character has no control.

  • Sheila B

    Informative article and interesting practice, Liz, Thank you.
    Here goes my practice:
    The city now known as Santa Fe was long inhabited by indigenous peoples, until the arrival of Spaniards in search of a mythical City of Gold. Categorizing the native people was difficult for the Spanish because they found them settled in pueblos farming. The belief was that only hunter gatherers and nomadics were Indians, so finding farmers confused the Spanish Conquistadors. But no matter, the native people were perceived as sub-human or inferior, deserving of being conquered and subjugated to the needs of the Spaniards, Natives were also viewed as being in need of conversion by the Catholic padres first and later by all other religious people we settled the area.
    Meanwhile, the Spaniards were welcomed by the Pueblo natives which proved to be a mistake by the natives as their own own cultures were abused and pillaged in various ways and they were forced to adopt the Spanish culture. Although to be fair, there was some blending of cultures, in that surviving in the area was dependent upon learning suiccessful agricultural methods. But much of the religion of the natives was made secret by the natives, to protect and preserve it.
    Eventually after the natives were pushed or run out, this area that lies at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo peaks was claimed by the Spanish. It was christianed as El Ciudad Royal de Santa Fe de San Francisoco, the Royal City of the Holy Faith of St. Francis, by Spanish govenor Don Pedro de Pealta, and thus the distinction of being the oldest capital city in North America has been conferred upon it as well as the oldest European city east of the MIssissippi.

    Okay that’s enough for me, passive voice is clunky!
    However I also want to note here that we will often find passive voice in politics especially when someone discovers abuse of power or position including illegal activities. It is rare that a politician ever says “I (or we) made a mistake.” The classic passive sentence is “Mistakes were made” as if they made themselves.

  • susan page

    Susan Page passive voice exercise/ BABY STEPS

    Confused senses with no where to go. Smoke made eyes shut. Sirens made ears ring. With every swallow a moment of clarity followed. Quickly phased out by reality.

    Boarded up windows and bandaged hearts take time to mend. Minds wait for the heavens to open . Clenched hands pray, begging brains cry, please God wash all this hate away.

    Days pass and two friends sit and watch from a worn out bench. The crowds move at the speed of a toddlers stroll. My eyes search for what used to be. They only see what is now.

    Boston is the birth place of my daughter. The birth place of dreams not nightmares. I watch as strangers become acquaintances and a sense of warmth briefly visits me.

  • Joe Volkel

    “Thinking this was a good article, I am”. Yoda

    • Contrary to popular belief, Yoda did not “talk backwards.” That is only the perception of an English-centric audience.

  • Sammy Hatch

    The skyscraper, one minute whole and undisturbed, was suddenly being ripped apart, its metal organs plummeting to the crowded streets below. Shock, horror and panic came in quick succession as we started to recognize our danger. I started to run, the hail of metal cords and glass slowly making its deadly descent from the skies above. I was tripped by a frightened man holding a crumpled bouquet of white lilies, now dirtied by the sidewalk. The inclination to help him came and went as quickly as his refusal of my outstretched hand. He makes his own choices. I kept running.

    Red fog started to invade my vision. I had run miles and yet I was still trapped in a hailstorm of falling debris. The whole city must have been exploding.

    • kevinshaabi

      The passive voice does great things for your already clear imagery here — I especially love the addition of the man with the crumpled lilies.

      • Sammy Hatch

        Thank you for your reply! This is my first time posting my practice and I had fun working with the passive voice.

    • More! More!

  • kevinshaabi

    I’d never learned about the difference between active and passive voice before, though I have found myself using a mix of the two in my own writing, albeit in an unintentional and perhaps disorganised way. So thank you for the article, and here is my first conscious attempt at practising (though it’s a personal event rather than a historical one):

    The doors had been closed, the jar of water filled. The curtains had been drawn — neatly, tightly — and there was a warm flush of sunlight diffusing through the window, bathing one side of the bed in an aureate wash. The duvet had been folded and arranged carefully, woefully, not an hour ago, but was now pulled over, rustling irregularly. The lilies beside the bed had not been watered. A little sound was made at intervals of no more than three or four minutes, and it was meek, such that an impression of uncertainty, or of innocence was exuded. It had previously been argued that indeed, these were not wholly two terms in conflict with each other. The sound would be heard along the corridor whenever the cold, tiled floor would be made to come in contact with a familiar pair of shoes, for the narrow, whitewashed walls had been designed to carry forth whatever echoes lingered there in those chambers. It was said occasionally — and at other times bawled — that the sounds were conveyed too well, for there were many to whom sleep did not gently come, and their gratitude was not retrieved with ease. Within the time that the last sound had filtered beneath the crack in the door and traversed the hall, stopping at the final locked door, the figure upon the sun-soaked bed had been awoken.

  • I don’t pay much attention to which voice I am using when I write. If it works, I keep it. If it doesn’t, I either revise it or throw it out. Here then is my practice, an event from my personal history with (unless I missed it somewhere) no passive voice at all.

    * * *
    I will never forget where I was the moment Akiko fell in love. She was in the school library with Tommy. The two of them always went there after lunch, before their next class. Tommy would read to her.

    Akiko had been rescued from a fire, which had left her blind. That had only been a few months ago. She was learning Braille, but still had a way to go before anyone could call her “fluent.” The fire had not only left her blind: it had left her illiterate.

    Tommy had been reading Karen Vance Hammond’s “Shoe Marks.” Akiko’s friend Sarah had told her Tommy liked her. Akiko had been skeptical, but Sarah pointed out how much time Tommy spent with her. That day, as Tommy read, Akiko had reached out and found his shoulder. She rested her hand there as he read.

    When the bell rang for the next class, they both stood. Akiko thanked Tommy for reading to her yet again. That was when Tommy suggested they go out. He had tried to sound casual, but Akiko clearly heard the nervous quaver in his voice. She smiled and told him she would like that. She resisted the urge to jump up and down excitedly and squeal.

    And where was I when this all happened? Why is it so indelibly burned into my memory? I was at the Graham Public Library, right across the street from the Lutheran church, seated at a little round wooden table typing away on my laptop. A wall of books silently watched as I created; books with titles like “Get a Literary Agent,” “In the Shadow of Edgar Allen Poe,” and “Teenagers 101.”

    For me, it was the first time I had experienced the joy of having one of my characters fall in love.

  • LilianGardner

    I like reading fiction in the active voice, and I try to write my stories in this voice. Fortunately, when writing in Word Docs, a prompt shows that you are using the passive voice, (very helpful). By rephrasing the sentence I find I can improve it.
    Thanks for your post, Liz. Using active and passive voice has often caused me to stop and think, and rephrase.

  • Jonathan Hutchison

    Thank you for this helpful reminder.

  • Alyssa Elwood

    This has been a very difficult exercise for me! Not sure if I completely nailed it.

    The air was rent by the screams of people in the city. As the soldiers moved further towards the center, their cries were becoming more panicked. The trap was closing in on the mice.

    The table had been shoved across the floor, revealing a small and dark passageway. With furtive movements and silent gestures, the room was quickly emptied. After the last of them had slipped through the hole with their precious cargo, Abigayil replaced the table. Not a minute later the door of the squat hovel was slammed open.

    The blade of the man was slippery with fresh blood. A shudder slipped down Abigayil’s spine. In a moment, he was joined by two others carrying similar weapons. The two-room hovel was quickly searched by the men. No attention was given to Abigayil; she was not their target. No sign of children was to be found in her home, for she was an old, barren woman. The hovel was occupied only by herself. That fact was her friends’ and neighbors’ salvation.

    More work was calling the men; drops of blood were left as the only sign of their invasion. Abigayil was shaking; she had forgotten to breathe. The table would remain pushed against the wall all night. The slaughter of the first born children would spare its occupants this night. The screams of the people were growing louder.