Active voice vs. passive voice

You may have heard about the “trick” to add “by zombies” to the end of a sentence to see if it’s in passive voice. Although that may be a fun way to explain grammar to kids, it doesn’t always work. Understanding sentence structure on a deeper level can help you strengthen your writing.

In active voice, the subject performs the action expressed by the verb.

The journalist wrote a breaking-news report.

In passive voice, the subject receives the action expressed by the verb.

The breaking-news report was written by the journalist.

Despite what Microsoft Word says, using passive voice is not wrong. Sometimes, it can be an effective style choice or is necessary to change the emphasis. Usually, however, it muddles and weakens writing. There’s a reason politicians, attorneys and PR people often use passive voice: It removes the subject (and often fault) from the sentence.

Mistakes were made.

Your rent will be collected.

He is being charged.

But the ambiguity tends to make a sentence wordy and convoluted. Who is doing what? Active voice makes writing stronger and clearer.

How to write in active voice

Lead with the subject. Who or what is doing the action?

The Yankees…

Next, add the verb.

The Yankees beat…

Finally, add any direct objects or additional info.

The Yankees beat the Orioles.

This sentence is clearer and more concise than The Orioles were beaten by the Yankees.

Here are some examples of passive-voice sentences that work better in the active voice:

Passive: The Samsung 850 SSD was tested.

Active: We tested the Samsung 850 SSD.

Passive: The rocket was launched by SpaceX.

Active: SpaceX launched the rocket.

Passive: It has been found that lung cancer can be caused by cigarette smoking.

Active: Researchers have found that cigarette smoking can cause lung cancer.

Active voice is particularly effective in headlines. Consider the following examples:

Tornado Decimates Kansas (ACTIVE)

Kansas Decimated by Tornado (PASSIVE)

Of course, the focus changes as well; the first example emphasizes the tornado and the verb (“decimates”), and the second highlights the location. The first example is not only more concise but also does a better job of helping readers visualize Mother Nature’s power.


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