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.
- 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 …