What is the active voice?

In the active voice, the subject performs the action. Sentences are active in voice when the person or thing performing the action comes before the verb. The message is clear about who is responsible for the action; the reader knows who is doing what. The sentence structure comprises subject, verb and object:

The girl jumps over the dog.

The man eats dinner.

The proofreader finds mechanical errors.

 

What is the passive voice? 

In the passive voice, the recipient of the verb’s action is in the subject’s position and the subject is acted upon. This is not as clear or direct as the active voice.  Sentences that use the passive voice contain one or all of the following: a past participle (this is the past-tense form of a verb and always appears in the passive voice); a form of the verb ‘to be’ (am, is, are, was, were, be, being and been – known as weak verbs); and the word ‘by’ if the performer is known or it is necessary to know them. These clues make it easier to identify the passive. Sentences in the passive voice can obscure clarity about who is responsible for what and they are also wordier than those in the active voice (we could blame this, partially, on the weak verbs). If we change the previous examples to passive voice, they would be written like this:

The dog was jumped over by the girl.

The dinner was eaten by the man.

Mechanical errors are found by a proofreader.

 

When do I use the active or passive voice?

Current conventions – such as those for plain language – in most writing practices prefer the active voice. Readers know who is responsible for what and can understand what is written quickly and easily. In business communications, formal documents and even academic work, readers should not need to read the same material several times to make sense of it. This is important. Generally, it is advisable to use the active voice more frequently than the passive voice in most forms of writing.

There are times, however, when the passive voice is preferable. It is effective when the object of a sentence needs the focus or when it is neither clear nor important who performed the action. Avoid using the passive voice for the sake of wordiness or to sound fancy. Have a look at these examples:

Ten thousand lives were lost in the flood. In this sentence the emphasis is on loss of life rather than the flood.

The books were covered in brown paper and plastic. We do not know, or it might not be important to know, who covered the books in this context.

 

What is the impact of active and passive voice on readers?

To reiterate, writing that uses the active voice conveys a clear message. Readers can easily understand what is written and can make sense of it because it is logical, accurate and, therefore, effective.

Passive writing can confuse readers when it is not clear who is responsible for what or if the reader is not sure what the focus of the communication is. They may have to reread material a few times if important information is lost in wordiness or in poorly structured sentences.

 

In conclusion, ask these questions to determine whether to use the active or passive voice in your own writing or in that of your authors:

  1. Who or what performs the action? If this is clear, start your sentence with that subject and use the active voice. If it is unclear, passive voice might be preferable.
  2. What is the focus of the sentence? Is it the subject performing the action or the object being acted upon?
  3. How clear is the message? Always choose the active voice in your communication if your audience needs to understand what you have written quickly and easily.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of PEG.

About Editorial team

The PEG editorial team comprises several PEG members who offer their time to writing, editing, proofreading and publishing our blog posts. We serve on a rotational basis. There are many members who are happy to participate in PEG’s output to ensure that high standards of editing are maintained and everyone remains correctly informed about the valuable role copy editors play in written communications.

About PEG

The Professional Editors’ Guild (PEG) is a non-profit company (NPC) in South Africa. Since moving to online activities in March 2020, PEG has been able to offer members across South Africa, and internationally, access to an extensive online webinar programme. Continuing professional development remains a key offering and the first PEG Accreditation Test was administered in August 2020 to benchmark excellence in the field of editing.