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Active Voice

Active voice occurs when the subject or agent in the sentence performs the action, often towards an object. For example, let's look at the following sentence written in active voice:

Katie spilled the milk.

In this sentence, Katie is the subject, and she performs the action (spilling) on the direct object (the milk.) The most obvious way to spot active voice is through the use of active verbs, which are simply verbs that express actions. In most cases, the sentence will take on the simple form of the tense it's in, whether past, present, or future.

Passive Voice

In passive voice, the object being acted upon is emphasized over the agent. A passive version of the previous sentence would look like this:

The milk was spilled by Katie.

In this sentence, our object (the milk) appears before the action (was spilled) and the agent (Katie.) You will also notice that this sentence is in the progressive form of the past tense and uses a "being" verb prior to the action.  Additionally, the preposition "by" tells us who is performing the action on the object.

In some cases we won't know who or what the agent acting is. This is called agentless passive, and in this form, our sentence might look like this:

The milk was spilled.

Our agent (Katie) is unknown. We have only the object (the milk) and the action (spilled).

Prescriptions Against the Passive

One of most persistent "rules" in academic and creative writing is "Never use passive voice." We might wonder what on earth is wrong with passive voice when it is not grammatically incorrect and or inherently wrong.

The primary issue with passive voice is that it deemphasizes the subject. For instance, Katie appears to play a lesser role in spilling the milk in our passive sentence. In the agentless passive, Katie disappears altogether. Passive voice feels more detached from the subject and the action.  Characters and speakers are more engaging with they directly act and interact. By placing emphasis on objects acted upon, we take away some of the involvement the reader has with the story.

This idea connects to the idea of showing, which was explained in another article.  We are quite simply trying to draw the reader into the scene. When we show the characters acting, we are usually showing the reader what is happening, as opposed to simply telling them.

In most cases, we should consider what George Orwell suggests in his 1946 article, "Politics and the English Language":

Never use the passive where you can use the active.1

This is actually the best summation of what we're discussing, because there will always be times when passive voice is unavoidable and even preferable to active voice. Let's take that agentless passive form we discussed earlier. If you recall, the subject is unknown. There are times when we can't know the agent of the action.  Let's say Katie finds a toy:

The doll's face was broken.

In this case, Katie has no idea who broke the doll. Passive voice is unavoidable, because the subject is missing or unknown. Also, the fact that the doll is broken might have some importance.

But considering the rule Orwell presents, we could shift this to active by emphasizing Katie, who has discovered the doll:

Katie found a broken doll on the floor.

In both cases, it depends on what we need to emphasize. If no one is in the room, and we're attempting to guide the reader through the scene, we might choose passive over active.

Passive voice can also convey a character's weakness. Let's say we have a character in a fight.

Daniel was pushed against the wall.

In this sentence, Daniel is emphasized as the object. This may serve to highlight his role as the weak man in the fight, which could aid the atmosphere and even characterization.

Overall, Orwell's conclusion should be our conclusion. If passive does the job we need it to do, we may leave it. But in many cases, active voice should be preferred. What we need to consider is how the relationship between subjects, verbs, and objects aids or detracts from our story. Active voice often does the job better.





  1. "Politics and the English Language," George Orwell, 1946.…

The wayward reader is invited to peruse… for more information on grammar and writing.

Refer also to our article on showing:…

This is a new version of the active/passive article. Unlike the last version, this is not billed as a "primer" on the subject. The goal here is to familiarize you with the very basics of active and passive voice, as well as when and where to use each. It is assumed that the reader has some basic knowledge of grammar terminology.

For more detailed information regarding grammar and style, visit the suggested links at the end of the article.

Add a Comment:
tmpst24myst Featured By Owner Aug 14, 2016  Student Writer
Very helpful, thank you. 
ghostfly Featured By Owner Feb 3, 2008
Nicely explained for the layman. I know this one's been around for a while, but one nit: you may want to hint that there are reasons to choose passive voice earlier in the article so that impatient readers don't get half way through, think "Okay, I get it," and leave.

The footnote's first two URLs are 404s (not found). I dug through Google for alternatives:

"Politics and the English Language" with annotations by Xah Lee, a few of which are useful (especially those explaining foreign/archaic phrases):

Mount Holyoke College International Relations Program hosts an unannotated, printer-ready version:

The Capital Community College Guide to Grammar and Writing still exists:
Geomasher Featured By Owner Jan 10, 2005
You could also include that the passive voice slows the pace of the story more. This makes its helpful usage more limited to more static or mellow scenes, imo.
followingOrwell Featured By Owner May 18, 2004   Writer
I'm not so sure about this. You basically give a couple examples of what passive voice is. And there is more to choosing how to write than "I want it to seem more active" or "I want to make it showcase the process. - time for passive"

"You use too much passive voice" is a common idea around here. I have a bit of a problem with passive voice in my own stuff, I am told, but the answer is not to "convert" it all to active. It is totally analogue. There is a time and a place for everything. Writing exclusively in kinetic active terms is equally stinky if the time is not right.

Assuming the reader at least knows what passive voice is, you literally could condense this entire article to the following:

"Active voice is more interesting and compelling than passive voice and you should usually use it. However, sometimes you can use passive voice too. For instance, passive voice is useful when giving crazy science directions and stuff. Otherwise, active voice is best. Thank you. Goodnight."

On top of that, the most technical you get is 'subject' and 'verb.' There are about 50 more parts of a sentence to consider. Ask girlonstage. She likes this sort of thing. I wouldn't so much call this a primer as half a page of one chapter of a primer. And part of the page is smudged by sticky fudge-fingerprints. And burned.

phew, my plan to comment on all OWAT stuff is tiring.
psychodrive Featured By Owner May 7, 2004
Hey, look it says Katie the second time instead of Kate. :D No matter.

An excellent primer to passive and active voice. Interestingly, the Japanese use passive voice when they wish to show that something has effected them on a personal level. Rather than saying "Greg stole my bike", they would say "I had my bike stolen by Greg." (My bike was stolen by Greg is better English but not a literal translation :)).

Pun of the day:
The news reeled Katie.
chiroptera Featured By Owner May 5, 2004
thank you !!!

very helpful indeed.. i will try to keep that in mind when writing..
kaujot Featured By Owner May 4, 2004
It needs more examples than just Kate and her milk.

Other than that, nice job.
dasya Featured By Owner May 4, 2004
This is the first time I've heard that there are situations right for passive.
followingOrwell Featured By Owner May 18, 2004   Writer
where is that dunce cap. its around here somewhere.

when I find it, you will be wearing it in the corner.
dasya Featured By Owner May 19, 2004
I used the word "heard," not "realized." Be certain of what has been said before you attempt to build ugly wit around it.
followingOrwell Featured By Owner May 19, 2004   Writer
yeah, or you could actually think about how to express yourself and not expect people to decipher the technical meaning. What you clearly said was that you didn't think the passive voice had a place in writing. What you say you meant is that you had never heard of other people who realized that the passive voice did have a place, but you did realize it. As far as I am concerned, you get the dunce cap for either one. :D

QED, biatch
dasya Featured By Owner May 20, 2004
You mean to say, you took my words to imply that passive voice didn't belong anywhere. That possible interpretation is there because some people use "I had not heard ..." as if they had to hear something to know it.
followingOrwell Featured By Owner May 20, 2004   Writer
The karmic responsibility of the Universe (U) after this discussion (hence-forthwith referred to as 'the desecration of Right') is to see that you are run over by a manure train out of Missouri (Hereafter: 'Source of Truth'). I'm sorry; I don't make the rules.
dasya Featured By Owner May 21, 2004
You can't break rules that aren't there. You can't "enforce" them, either. Trying to do so certainly doesn't do anybody good.

This will be my last reply, no need to clutter up ~onewordatatime's deviation with a petty argument.
followingOrwell Featured By Owner May 22, 2004   Writer
there is a dire need to do exactly that.
did you lose your sense of humor in a water polo incident?
girlonstage Featured By Owner May 4, 2004
This is driving me nuts, so i researched it some more.

Twenty cc of acid was poured into the beaker. is a passive sentence, because the direct oject occupies the subject position. (What was poured? Acid.) The flaw, and this is where it gets confusing, is that this is an agentless passive sentence. Now of course, there's nothing wrong with this, but it does get confusing if you are writing a "primer" for beginners. Agentless passives can't be coherently switched to active voice because we're not given who/whom is doing the verb.

As a matter of fact, the president example is an angentless passive too.

Another massive clue to passive voice with proper agents/patients/ (and/or) benificiarys is the use of the word "by", which you demonstrated in an example.

"The milk was spilled by Kate." passive voice.
"Kate spilled the milk." active voice.

Kate = agent
milk = patient (direct object)

Now, if you added another person, forsay, "Kate spilled the milk on Danny" Danny would be the beneficiary (i.e.= indirect object)

Make sense? Hope so. :)
onewordatatime Featured By Owner May 5, 2004
Thank you for your comments. Perhaps a revision of the article is in order. If you have any more suggestions, please feel free to offer them.
girlonstage Featured By Owner May 5, 2004
classify the parts of the sentence more clearly; indirect/direct object, and verb types. (Transitive verbs take objects), and the duties of each word in a passive/active sentence.
girlonstage Featured By Owner May 4, 2004
anavelg0083 Featured By Owner May 3, 2004
Well, if you don't mess up the tone, what's the point? The author's faced with a choice on just HOW his work is going to sound. If the piece is completely in your face, active voice is a must. But I'm pretty confident to say that I can pick up a classic and find a very wide array of the usages of active/passive that suit the literature perfectly. I'm rather sick of hearing about this, mainly from my English and History teachers, because they prescribe that it is ESSENTIAL to get the points across, when it's not. It depends on the situation, and isn't a complete Rule. The prospect is flawed in that assumption
sumants Featured By Owner May 8, 2004   Writer
Your teachers are right. You need to practice more writing.
noenaemae Featured By Owner May 3, 2004
knowledge...nontheless.... thanks!!! would be great if onewordatatime would go to my site and comment on my poetry :)
nilocnag Featured By Owner May 2, 2004
I remember my English teacher went overboard on this. It was all she talked about for a month.

That aside, I believe dialogue is partially exempt from this technique. One tends to use passive voice regularly in normal speech, after all.
driftingawake Featured By Owner May 2, 2004   Writer
OMG :faint: that's from my creative writing text book! weird because we were just going over all that before we did our short story finals -- straaaange, and passive/active voice is one of my weak spots. i tend to shift back and forth b/t the two fairly often.

i agree - there should have been (< --passive, haha) some mention of when and where to use passive voice, because it can work when it is used in the right place/context.
interzonepolice Featured By Owner May 2, 2004  Professional General Artist
this article will only confuse new writers. you forgot to mention how the tone of the piece is affected by the passive/active voice. it's good to be aware of what kind of way you're writing, but all the suggestions in here might just be overdoing it a little.

just my opinion. some people learn differently then me, so hopefully someone will gather something usefull from this.
onewordatatime Featured By Owner May 3, 2004
This was really meant as a basic beginner's guide to passive and active voice. The idea is just to get people thinking, so tone is only just barely touched upon.
Thank you for your suggestions. :)

interzonepolice Featured By Owner May 3, 2004  Professional General Artist
to be honest, i've never payed attention to passive or active voices in my entire writing experience. i suppose that i did learn a little bit about it through this, and i certainly went back to look through my poems. i still don't think it's that important, but i suppose that it's good to kind of keep on a side burner if you're REALLY stuck (or if you really suck =P)
emptyluckystrange Featured By Owner May 2, 2004
i agree that active voice is generally better for writing, but i don't like the example at all. you used two different sentences, of coarse the second was more descriptive it had more description. for the example you needed something like.

Kate was shocked by the news.


the news shocked kate.

they need to be the same sentence in both active and passive voice, you can't paraphrase.
onewordatatime Featured By Owner May 3, 2004
This is a very good recommendation. Changes to the article will be made.
Thanks for your input. :)

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