Passive Voice vs. Active Voice: What's the Difference?
As a professional or business owner, you want your communication to be clear and direct. That way, you can reduce the risk of team members, clients, suppliers, or the public misunderstanding your message.
There are two grammatical voices in writing: passive and active voices. Both serve their purposes. Generally speaking, the active voice is preferable in most business writing, while the passive voice is often necessary for conveying ideas in technical and scientific content.
As with any rule in the English language, however, there are exceptions. English grammar is full of contradictions that are challenging and, at the same time, fun to learn about.
Learning the differences between passive and active voices is essential if you want to take your communication (and your career) to the next level. Then, you will understand when to apply them to make your communications more impactful.
Alright, linguists, let’s discuss.
What Is the Passive Voice?
The passive voice refers to when the verb acts on a sentence’s or clause’s subject. That is, the subject is having an act done to it instead of doing the act itself.
Every passive voice sentence consists of a conjugated form of the infinitive “to be” and the verb’s past participle. Most of these sentences generate prepositional phrases with the word “by'' too.
What Are Some Examples of the Passive Voice?
Describing grammatical voices through writing is quite meta, so passive form might sound a bit more complicated than it is. In reality, it’s pretty easy to detect the passive voice in content. Here is one example to consider:
- The coffee was sipped by Jennifer.
The subject of this sentence is the coffee, which is not doing anything. Jennifer is the one acting (she sipped the coffee).
Because the subject is receiving rather than performing the action, this sentence is in the passive voice. Every passive voice sentence follows the same fundamental structure: (passive subject + to be + past participle).
Check out the following examples of passive voice construction:
- The oranges were purchased by Grayson in New York.
- Spaghetti was being cooked by Thomas last night.
- Today, Sonya is being asked a big question by her fiancé.
- The task has just been completed.
- The new apartments were constructed in May.
- Allow the papers to be signed by Fiona.
When Should You Use the Passive Voice?
One common mistake that writers and communicators make is using the passive voice because they think it sounds fancier than the active voice. This is rooted in the fact that much of legal and scientific writing uses the passive voice.
However, the truth is the passive voice is necessary for those industries because the active voice cannot convey specific ideas effectively.
With that said, the passive voice still has a place in business writing as long as you use it sparingly. For example, the passive voice can help you communicate more clearly when reporting an event that took place or emphasizing an action itself while the actor is irrelevant.
Generally, it’s ideal to write most of your sentences in business writing in the active voice. When there is no way to get your point across in any other way, go with the passive voice.
What Is the Active Voice?
The active voice refers to when the subject of a sentence or clause is acting upon something instead of having the act done to it. Because the subject performs the main verb’s action, active voice sentences put forth a direct and clear tone. They are typically stronger and more straightforward than passive voice sentences.
What Are Some Examples of the Active Voice?
Remember the passive voice sentence above: The coffee was sipped by Jennifer.
Rewriting this sentence in the active voice would look like this: Jennifer sipped the coffee. The subject (Jennifer) acted on the verb (sipped). Sentences using the active voice can include a direct object that describes who or what is on the receiving end of the action. In this instance, the coffee is the direct object that identifies what Jennifer sipped.
You might notice that the subject in our passive voice sentence is different from the equivalent sentence written in the active voice. In the first (passive voice) sentence, the subject is the coffee, which had the action performed on it instead of doing the action itself.
In the active voice sentence, Jennifer is the subject. She performed the action denoted by the verb, which leads to a nice, clear sentence.
Below are the other example sentences from above, written in the active voice.
Notice that we have added subjects to some of them:
- Grayson purchased the oranges in New York.
- Thomas was cooking spaghetti last night.
- Sonya’s fiancé will ask her a big question today.
- They just completed the task.
- The company constructed the new apartments in May.
- Allow Fiona to sign the papers.
When Should You Use the Active Voice?
The active voice is the most used in formal writing and speech. However, it is also the most natural voice to use in personal writings (such as a blog) and casual conversation. In other words, it’s ideal to use the active voice in most business, professional, and academic settings.
Using the active voice doesn’t require you to follow any special rules or structure. It generally revolves around a simple, effective sentence structure: subject + verb. With that said, you must ensure the sentence is grammatically correct by using subject-verb agreement.
You might notice how the active voice versions of the example sentences above are cleaner, shorter, and more direct than their passive voice counterparts. Writing most of your sentences in the active voice will help your communication make a more significant impact.
So, What Are the Key Differences Between the Active and Passive Voice?
The primary differences can be summed up in three points:
- A sentence is written in the active voice when the subject is a person or thing that performs the action. In a passive voice sentence, the action is received by the subject.
- The active voice puts the subject acting upon the verb, whereas the passive voice puts the subject being acted upon by the verb.
- In an active voice sentence, the actor is the subject. The acting person, doer, or thing is responsible for the action and appears at the beginning of the sentence. Conversely, in a passive voice sentence, the person or thing being acted upon appears at the beginning of the sentence. The actor appears at the end of the sentence after the preposition by.
Why Proper Grammar Matters
Speaking and writing in proper grammar can go a long way in making you appear more knowledgeable, intelligent, and intentional. It inspires confidence and trust in your colleagues and clients, and it may prove invaluable during your next job interview!
Then, there’s the fact that correct grammar makes communication clearer, which can minimize confusion and ensure your listeners (or readers) understand precisely what you are explaining or calling them to do. Clarity is essential in team communication and can significantly boost collaboration, productivity, and efficiency.
Easy Ways To Improve Communication
If you’re looking to sharpen your communication skills (or your team’s), regularly practicing grammar activities, reading well-written content, and listening to well-spoken professionals are excellent ways to start. There are also plenty of tools on the market designed to improve communication.
Software like Grammarly and Hemingway points out grammatically incorrect phrases and sentences, misspelled words, and many other errors in written text. These tools will even recommend specific changes to make your content more impactful.
Poised is another tool to consider. This communication coach software provides lessons, real-time performance monitoring during virtual meetings, and tips for how you can improve. Whether you’re rambling, not interacting enough, or keeping your camera in the wrong position, Poised will let you know — from your first sentence to your last.
How To Stop Using the Passive Voice
If you recognize that you’re using the passive voice too often, you can take actionable steps to improve. Grammar tools will often point them out so that you don’t even have to read through all of your content to see where changes are necessary.
Nonetheless, you can also use the information above for identifying the passive voice in your writing, and doing so will get easier with time.
Consider these three simple steps for converting a passive voice sentence to an active voice:
- Determine the person or thing performing the action denoted by the verb, and make that person or thing the subject of the sentence.
- Eliminate the verb form of to be, and make the past participle a correctly conjugated form of the verb (remember subject-verb agreement).
- Convert the subject of the old sentence into a direct object.
Active Sentences: Put Passive in Your Past Tense
There’s no need to eliminate passive sentences entirely from your writing. Even if you wanted to, it’s not possible in some situations. Plus, even writing instructors would tell you that the use of passive voice can sometimes add creative flair — which can entrance us all.
With that said, there’s no getting around that writing (and speaking) most of your sentences in the active voice will make your communications stronger and clearer — word order matters.
If you’re ready to leave your overly passive sentences in the dust, follow the advice above and keep learning as much as you can about the role of grammar in business and the workplace. Finally, remember to look into tools like Poised for turning yourself into a confident, effective communicator!