Active Voice

“Active voice” refers to the relationship between the subject and the verb of a sentence.  In an active sentence, the subject carries out the action of the verb, i.e., “Joseph (subject) ate (verb) the burrito.” In passive sentences, however, the subject no longer acts but is acted upon by the verb: “The burrito was eaten (verb) by Joseph (subject)” or “The burrito was eaten” (if the subject is unknown).  Below are some more examples. Note that in these examples, the sentences become shorter and more specific because active writing forces the writer to be clearer and more assertive.

The reason he left his job at the bank was because his health began to fail.He left his job at the bank because his health began to fail.
The balloon was blown up by me.I blew up the balloon.
The boat has been destroyed by a hurricane.A hurricane destroyed the boat.
The dragon has been killed by the heroine.The heroine killed the dragon.

Why is it important to use the active voice?*

When writers use the active voice, their words are direct; they use concrete verbs and clearly state the action being performed by the subject. In contrast, the passive voice is indirect; writers may use weak “to be” verbs (is, am, was, were, being, been) or present progressives (e. g., is working, is laughing), and the actor in the sentence is absent or disguised.

How can passive writing be revised to make use of the active voice?

Find the subject of the sentence; the subject should be the one performing the action, not receiving the action.

Passive: He was questioned by me.

  • The subject of this sentence is he, and he is being questioned. He is not performing an action but is receiving the action.
  • This sentence can be revised to make the subject represent the person or thing that is performing the action.

Active: I questioned him.

  • The subject of the sentence is I, and is followed by a concrete action verb. The subject is doing the questioning instead of being questioned.

Check each sentence for passive voice; revise the sentence construction to make use of the active voice. This process is facilitated when “to be” verbs are eliminated and present progressives are replaced with action verbs when possible.

For additional resources on active voice, see also: