RedPen Editing
Voice: active and passive

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The terms ‘active’ and ‘passive’ describe the voice of the subject of a sentence.

  • The voice is active when the subject acts.
  • The voice is passive if the subject is on the receiving end of some action.

Most information can be expressed either way:

  • ACTIVE: Harry met Sally at the station.
    Harry is the subject. He meets Sally at the station.
  • PASSIVE: Sally was met at the station by Harry.
    Sally is the subject. She is met by Harry at the station.

Does it matter which you use?

This is not a black-and-white situation. One is not always right; the other is not always wrong. Much depends on the purpose of the communication.

  • Passive voice can be long-winded, awkward and vague.
    Active voice usually results in fewer words and greater clarity.
  • Passive voice tends to depersonalise or undermine the authority of a character so an author might use passive voice if that’s the desired effect. Passive voice might also introduce a sense of mystery: the body was found in the library!
    Active voice includes mention of a subject who is the centre of attention, eg the main character of a story. Active voice directly links the character with their actions.

If you are writing a report, it may be better not to mention who has done what, just that something has been done. The focus with passive voice is therefore on the action, not on the subject.

  • After extensive testing, it was discovered that …
    There is no mention of who did the testing – and no recognition of individual contributions.
  • The findings suggest that …
    The sub text to this may be that not everyone agreed, but consensus was reached.
  • A mistake was made. Shots were fired.
    No blame is apportioned!

While passive voice is acceptable in reports where it is assumed the information is objective and fact based, such a writing style could seem overly dull if used for short stories or novel writing.

Health warning

  • Mixing active and passive in a single sentence can result in an unnecessary shift in voice. Be kind to your readers!
  • Using the passive voice, not mentioning the subject, can also result in dangling participles …