Teachers always encourage students — especially college students — to emulate the passive voice writing style that professionals use.
And students embrace this passive style because it helps them chip away at the required word count.
However, modern content marketers frown on the passive voice because it stinks of academia’s uppityness.
On the flip side, experts believe that customers are more likely to trust a brand that communicates using active sentences.
So, this article compares passive vs. active voice writing. I also explore some fundamental active and passive voice rules to help you differentiate both styles.
But first, let’s define the key parts of a sentence in the English language.
- Subject (S): usually the noun (person or thing) that performs the action.
- Verb (V): a word that indicates the performed action.
- Object (O): The noun that receives the action.
Boys kill cats.
In the sentence above, “boys” is the subject, “kill” is the verb, and “cats” is the object.
With a better understanding of sentence construction, let’s explore the definitions of passive and active voice writing.
What is active voice?
Active voice refers to a sentence construction or syntax that follows the (SVO) subject-verb-object model.
Here are some active voice examples:
We played the song.
She closed the curtain.
I planted the vegetables in the garden.
Active sentences are common in non-scientific writing, where clarity and simplicity are paramount.
What is passive voice?
Passive voice refers to a sentence construction that reverses the standard sentence order for emphasis or convenience. The object comes first, then the verb and subject.
Here are some passive voice examples:
The song was played by us.
The curtain was closed by her.
The vegetables in the garden were planted by me.
Notice that all the sentences in the example contain “by” and the pronoun form changes as well (we-us, she-her, I-me).
Besides, the sentence becomes wordy since you have to introduce new words and change verb forms.
The passive voice is standard practice in jargon-filled academic and professional communication, where the first-person narration is not commonplace.
Active vs. passive voice usage
Active voice writing is the standard mode of communication when you want to prioritize the subject.
Check out these two examples.
Active: Users can play the game indoors.
Passive: The game can be played indoors by users.
The active style puts the “users” in front, while the passive style puts the “game” in pole position.
You can also see that the delivery is concise.
With that in mind, here are the situations that allow the active voice writing style.
- Client communication
- Content writing
- Email campaigns
- Landing page content
When to use the passive voice
The passive voice still has a place in writing, even though top dogs like Stephen King and William Zinsser clamor against using it.
Here are some perfect scenarios for the active voice writing style:
- To emphasize the object and action rather than the subject.
Since active voice writing follows the standard SVO arrangement, the subject always takes precedence.
But if you want to push the object to the limelight, you can switch to passive voice.
The Bill was passed by the Senate Committee.
In this passive voice example, the Bill (object) is the priority.
- When the subject (performing the action) is unknown
Active voice falls short when the subject is unknown — or unimportant to the sentence.
My car was stolen yesterday.
However, some writers might argue that “Someone stole my car” sounds better.
Notwithstanding, the passive voice version delivers the same message.
The child was born in 1997.
The school was established in 2002.
This style is acceptable because the “child” and “school” are in the limelight.
In this particular instance, you can’t mention who birthed the child or who established the school.
- To establish authority.
Since passive voice is prevalent in academic and professional writing, authors use this style to establish authority.
According to the study, proceeds from the research were donated to the homeless. From the obtained data, a predictive model was created for further research…
Passive voice allows writers to add more context to subjects, which becomes a struggle when you write in the active voice.
Why use the active voice writing style?
From these active and passive voice examples above, you can see that both forms are suitable for different writing scenarios.
But why do modern writers prefer active voice?
- The active voice is engaging — As the name suggests, active voice writing uses “action” verbs to keep the reader engrossed in the content. The directness of this style makes your story, copy, or article engaging.
- The active voice style improves clarity — Active voice writing is easily comprehensible, especially for non-native English speakers. The simplistic structure also makes your content easier to digest, which is a valuable asset in this era of short attention spans.
- Active sentences remove wordiness — Active writing uses fewer words than passive voice writing, making the content more readable. Also, you get to the point faster with active sentences.
- Active voice writing connects better with readers — When you combine readability, conciseness, and engagement, you get the perfect formula for web content. Writing in the active voice gives you all three and makes your message sound credible to readers.
How to master the active voice writing style
Choosing the active writing style is one thing, but eliminating the passive style is a different proposition.
And why is that?
Our experience with written content comes from college academic papers that promote passive voice usage.
As a result, we still cling to these habits through the years.
But when you practice with active and passive voice exercises, you will find better ways to deliver your ideas using action words.
You should also study active voice writing examples to see how expert writers construct their sentences.
Read the works of Stephen King and Ernest Hemingway — and other writing guides — to discover how they evade passive voice in their prose.
Above all, always proofread your work to make sure the subject is always performing the action. Use Grammarly’s active voice writing checker to proofread and edit your final drafts.
Writers dislike the passive writing style because it sounds vague and overly formal.
However, the passive voice can be used when the subject is unknown, especially in professional academic writing.
Nevertheless, use active voice writing exercises to improve your writing.
Apply these active voice writing tips to improve your content and connect with readers.