Active and Passive Voice The Writing Center
Brigham Young University
English has two voices, active and passive, which describe the relationship between the subject and
verb of the sentence. Voice indicates whether a subject acts or is acted upon. Understanding the
definition, use, and effect of both active and passive voice will enable you to write more
When a sentence is in the active voice, the subject performs the action of the verb. Active constructions
are more direct, dramatic, and clear because the active voice identifies the actor. Active voice
often uses fewer words than passive voice.
Example: The terrorists stole the missiles from the government. [The subject terrorists does the acting; they
In the passive voice, the subject receives the action or is acted upon. The verb’s action is performed “by”
something other than the subject.
Example: The missiles were stolen from the government by terrorists. [The subject missiles is acted upon by
terrorists; they were stolen. The stealing was done by terrorists.]
The actor might not be mentioned:
Example: Decisions were made quickly. [The subject decisions is acted upon; the decision-makers are not
Note: Passive voice is typically avoided because it can confuse the meaning of the sentence. The
construction obscures who acted, causing problems in identification.
Appropriate Use of Passive Voice
Sometimes the passive voice is appropriate. Published scientific research often uses the passive voice
to relate data because the actor or researcher is not as important as the findings.
Passive is best used when:
The actor is unknown or there is little need to know:
Passive Example: The lock was broken sometime after four o'clock. [Who broke the lock is unknown.]
Passive Example: In 1899, the year I was born, a peace conference was held at the Hague. [The doers of the
action––holders of the conference––don’t need to be emphasized because they are less important
than the event.]
Attention should be focused on the action rather than the actor:
Passive Example: Oxygen was discovered in 1774 by Joseph Priestley. [Emphasis is on what was done.]
Note: “Be” verbs (is, are, was, were, has been, etc.) linked to a past participle create passive voice.
Watching for them can help you spot which voice you’re using (Trimble 56).
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Working with Voice
As a general rule, avoid using passive voice. John Trimble argues that passive voice lends itself to being
vague and difficult to understand. He shows how much less impressive and inspiring The
Declaration of Independence would be had it been written in passive voice:
Our seas have been plundered, our coasts have been destroyed, our towns have been burnt, and the
lives of our people have been destroyed.
In this version the actions are still abhorrent, but no one is held responsible. The framers wanted
Parliament and other revolutionaries to know that King George was responsible. Thus the active
He [King George III] has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the
lives of our people. (Trimble 57)
These words are concise and put the blame squarely on the actor, King George III. The active
voice more effectively motivated the audience to revolution.
Most sentences in passive voice can be easily converted to active voice.
Passive: Fiberglass surfboards are often broken by large waves.
Active: Large waves often break fiberglass surfboards.
Converting passive to active puts the emphasis on the actor. Moving the actor to the beginning of
the sentence and rewording the idea changes the voice. This provides more clarity and helps to
orient the reader.
Faigley, Lester. The Brief Panguin Handbook. New York: Pearson, 2003.
Lannon, John M. Technical Communication. (Costom edition for Brigham Young University)
Boston: Pearson, 2003.
Trimble, John. Writing with Style. New Jersey: Prestice Hall, 2000.
Williams, Joseph. Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace. New York: Longman, 2003.
Jessica Stuart, summer 2005
Based on a handout by Paul Corriveau, March 2000