active voice, passive voice, voice

Sentences written in active voice are usually clearer and more effective than sentences written in passive voice. However, that doesn’t mean we should always avoid passive voice.

Active vs. passive voice

In active voice, the subject is the doer of the action expressed in the verb:

  • Maneesha ate the apple.
    [Maneesha did the eating.]
  • The theatre company will perform a Shakespearean play next week.
    [The company will do the performing.]

In passive voice, the subject is the receiver of the action expressed in the verb:

  • The apple was eaten by Maneesha.
    [The apple didn’t do the eating; it received the action.]
  • A Shakespearean play will be performed next week.
    [The play won’t do the performing; it will receive the action.]

In these last two examples, the action is done by a person (or group of people) and carried over onto the apple and the play. Thus, the subjects “apple” and “play” are the receivers of the action. In these sentences, the doer of the action is either named in a phrase after the verb (“by Maneesha”) or is left unnamed.

Advantages of active voice

Active voice is more concise: an active voice sentence is always shorter than the same sentence in passive voice.

Active voice is clearer and more direct, because it puts the doer of the action first and follows a logical order:

DOER of action + ACTION + RECEIVER of action (if any)

And of course, active voice is active—so it makes our writing more dynamic and energetic. For these reasons, it is usually better to write in active voice—and to rewrite any passive voice sentences to make them active.

Uses of passive voice

Although active voice is usually better, passive voice makes good sense in the following situations:

  • when the doer of the action is unknown
    • The lights were left on.
      [You don’t know who left them on.]
  • when the doer of the action is less important than the receiver
    • The package was delivered this morning.
      [It doesn’t matter who brought it.]
  • when you want to avoid naming the doer of the action
    • I was given the wrong directions.
      [You don’t want to lay blame.]

Inclusive writing

The last use of the passive listed above (as a way to avoid naming the doer of an action) can be a useful technique to make your writing gender-inclusive.

When the person doing an action is represented by a gendered pronoun (“he,” “she,” and “he or she,” or any of their forms), you can often eliminate the pronoun by making your sentence passive:

Active, gendered sentence Passive, inclusive sentence
If a member cannot attend the meeting, he or she must submit a vote by proxy. A vote must be submitted by proxy if a member cannot attend the meeting.
Each employee must pick up his or her identification badge in person. Identification badges must be picked up by each employee in person.

Search by related themes

Want to learn more about a theme discussed on this page? Click on a link below to see all the pages on the Language Portal of Canada that relate to the theme you selected. The search results will be displayed in Language Navigator.

Date modified: