Friday, January 25, 2019

A Primer on Active vs. Passive Voice for Writers

By Lori Hatcher @LoriHatcher2

When you think of the word passive, what comes to mind? A wimpy, limp-handed mama’s boy? An acquiescing woman (or man) who never stands up to their spouse? A timid puppy that rolls over on its back when it encounters a bigger, meaner dog?

In grammar, voice is about the relationship of the subject to its verb. Every verb has voice. It is either active or passive. 

Last month on A Primer on Parallelism for Writers I gave you some pointers on one of the most common writing mistakes I encounter in my work as an editor, faulty parallelism. This month, I’d like to share some information about another repeat offender – passive voice.

In the active voice, the subject of a verb acts. In passive voice, the subject is acted upon

For example:

Arnold Schwarzenneger ran for Governor of California.

Arnold Schwarzenneger was elected Governor of California.

Arnold is the subject of both sentences, but in the first example, Arnold ran, making the subject active. He did the running. This is the active voice. 

In the second example, Arnold doesn’t act at all. He is acted upon. He was elected. This is passive voice.

When You Should Use Active Voice

Active verbs (versus passive verbs like is, was, were, am, are) create dynamic sentences. They launch your sentences forward rather than weighing them down. Sentences that use active verbs read better and seldom struggle with wordiness. Active verbs help you write tight.

When You Should Use Passive Voice

Don’t assume, however, that it’s always wrong to use passive voice. Sometimes a subject needs to be passive, like when you want to create sympathy for your subject. Consider this example:

*The 80-year-old woman was robbed by an unknown assailant in her front yard.

*An unknown assailant robbed an elderly woman in her front yard.

The first version focuses on the poor little old lady’s unfortunate plight. The second seems like an impersonal report on a police blotter, focusing on the criminal rather than the victim.

The Choice Depends on Who or What You Want to Emphasize

The passive voice puts the spotlight on the person or object experiencing the action rather than the one who performs the action. Which do you want to emphasize? The person that experiences the action or the person who performs it? Which is the goal of the sentence?

*Cara Mund was crowned Miss America in 2018.

*Judges crowned Cara Mund Miss America in 2018.

Both these sentences are correct, but the first is passive (the subject, Cara Mund, received the action of being crowned). This places the emphasis on Cara, not the judges. The second sentence is active, placing the emphasis on the judges who crowned Cara, not on her for being crowned. 

If you were writing an article about Cara, the passive voice would work better. If you were describing the 2018 Miss America pageant, you’d want to use the active voice.

You may also choose to use passive voice when the person doing the action is unknown. Take this sentence for example:

My sidewalk was neatly shoveled every morning before the sun came up. 

This passive construction emphasizes the fact that an unknown someone did a kind act, not on the person who did the kind act, because I don’t know who it was.

I hope this explanation helps clarify this often confusing but very common writing challenge. My general rule of thumb is to use active voice whenever possible and reserve passive voice for very specific and intentional cases.

Now it’s time to apply what you’ve learned. Write your own pair of active and passive verb sentences and share them in the comment box below. If you model your sentences after some of my examples, it will help the concept find a permanent home in your writer’s toolbox. Ready, set, GO!

Here’s my attempt:

Knowing when to use passive versus active voice is a common struggle for writers. (Passive)

Writers often struggle to know when to use passive and active voice. (Active)


This material is part of Lori’s workshop practicum, “(Practically) Painless Editing for the Grammatically Challenged.” She’ll be sharing this and other workshops at the Carolina Christian Writers Conference in Spartanburg, South Carolina March 1-2. She hopes to see you there!


  1. Lori, I appreciate this post. I know the difference, but hadn't thought about purposely using passive voice to evoke sympathy for a character or create a certain feeling. Another tool for my toolbox!

    1. Hooray! I'm so glad even a seasoned writer has gained something from this primer. We never stop learning, do we?

  2. "We are cold-weather bound."
    The cold temperatures keep us in the house."

    1. Perfect. I feel the passivity of being bound by the cold weather in your first sentence. And the power of the cold temperatures in your second. Well done. Even so, come quickly, Lord Spring!