Active voice: Big Brother is watching you.
Passive voice: You are being watched by Big Brother
Active voice: They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.
Passive voice: Paradise was paved and a parking lot put up.
Active voice is the voice of power, action, and drive. It is the voice God speaks in. God didn't say, "Thy neighbour’s wife shall not be coveted by you." He said, "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife." If God wrote the Ten Commandments in the passive voice, they would sound more like the Ten Suggestions. When He writes in an active voice, you know He means business.
Active voice is usually clear, emphatic, and flowing. It is also direct. Readers prefer the active voice (whether they are aware of it or not), because it decreases the amount of mental work required for understanding the text. People naturally have a more positive reaction to active voice than they do to passive voice.
In the most basic active-voice construction is: subject – verb – direct object. The subject “acts” on a direct object. A verb is in the active voice when it expresses an action the subject performs.
I caught the fish.
You are making too much noise.
Judy plans to make tacos and watch DVDs tomorrow night
In each of these sentences, the subject (I, You and Judy) performs the action of the verb (caught, making, watch DVDs). The sentences are punchy, direct and make it clear who’s doing what.
Writing in the passive voice means creating sentences where the subject is “passive” – acted upon, rather than agents of action. In this case, sentences often become confusing or simply dull.
The fish was caught by me.
Too much noise is being made by you.
Tomorrow night, making tacos and watching DVDs will be done by Judy.
In each of these sentences, the subject (“the fish”, “too much noise”, “making tacos” and “watching DVDs”) is being acted upon by the verb. With sentences written in this way, we can even eliminate the agent who is performing this action:
The fish was caught.
Too much noise is being made.
Tomorrow evening, tacos will be made and DVDs will be watched.
These are all perfectly correct sentences, but the reader has the sense that something is missing. Who caught the fish? Who or what is making too much noise? And who’s going to make those tacos and watch those DVDs?
Take a piece of writing that you’ve produced, and go through it, checking to see if each sentence is in the active or the passive voice. One clue to look out for when searching for sentences in the passive voice is the use of “was”:
The promotion was welcomed . . .
The gift was received . . .
The horse was ridden . . .
Another clue is the use of “by” when referring to who did something:
The dinner was made by me . . .
The flowers were brought by John . . .
The car was driven by . . .
Once you’ve identified the passive sentences in your work, try rewriting them in the active voice. Does it make a difference? If you’ve found and changed a lot of sentences, read the piece from start to finish. Do you see an improvement? Compare the word count from the original and your revised version to see how many words you were able to cut.
Writing in the active voice rather than the passive voice gives your writing more life and more clarity. Use the active voice unless doing so makes a sentence awkward. Your writing will stand out, and your readers will perceive you as more energetic than if you had used passive voice. No matter what field you are in, active voice will improve your credibility because you are talking to the reader instead of at the reader.