Active/Passive Voice

In English Grammar, sometimes the doer of the action is not mentioned. This happens simply because:

• the action, and not the doer/actor of the action, is important.

You enter a classroom and you see that “the chairs are arranged in a semi-circle around a table.” The focus is on the action, i.e. arrangement and the way the chairs are arranged and not on the person who has arranged them.

• the doer of the action is already known or evident to us.

While reading a scientific text, you may come across a sentence like this:  “This experiment is done under ideal consitions.” It is clear who has done the experiment; whether the name(s) of the researcher(s) are mentioned within the article or not, we know that in an experiment, say a chemical experiment, the actions are usually done by an expert in chemistry.

•  the doer/actor is unknown to us.

e.g. John’s luxury car was stolen this morning. (Do you know the thief?)

You may have been told by a writing teacher to avoid using the passive voice.

Definition of active/passive voice

The verb is active when the subject of the sentence is the doer of the action:

The boy threw the rock.

The boy is doing the action of the verb threw. The rock is the receiver of the action.

Passive voice makes the subject the receiver of the action.

The rock was thrown by the boy.

In the following examples, both sentences are grammatically correct, but the second communicates the main idea more quickly and directly.


The activities of women in colonial Pennsylvania are described vividly by Joan Jensen.
active: Joan Jensen vividly describes the activities of women in colonial Pennsylvania.

Preference for Active Voice

Generally, active voice is preferred because it is

bullet less wordy than passive
bullet less ambiguous
bullet more active because the doer of the action is the focus of attention
bullet easier to read than the passive voice

Effective Use of Passive Voice

In some situations, however, the passive voice may be used effectively. In fact, a sentence used above–“You may have been told by a writing teacher to avoid using the passive voice”–employs the passive voice. We chose to use the passive voice because we wanted to emphasize you in the sentence. Let the writing situation guide your use of active or passive voice.

Use the passive voice

bullet the person/thing receiving the action is more important than the performer of the action.

Harry Osgood was elected county commissioner by a mere 51% of voters.

bullet you do not want to mention the person/thing performing the action.

My parents’ favorite lamp was broken.

bullet you need a smooth transition from one sentence or section of a document to the next.

We will develop a new budgeting process that will include all work center supervisors. Work center supervisors will be interviewed by department management.

Changing passive voice to active voice

The following steps can help you change a passive voice sentence to the active voice:

  1. Locate the verb of the sentence.

    My parents’ favorite lamp was broken by my sister Julie.

  2. Determine who the actor of the sentence is (the doer of the action). The actor may or may not be used in the passive voice sentence. Write the sentence so that the actor performs the action.

    My sister Julie broke my parents’ favorite lamp.

Here, then, are your tools of thumb: •Active verbs move the action and reveal the actors. •Passive verbs emphasize the receiver, the victim. •The verb to be links words and ideas.

Introductory lines by: Ehsan Shams

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