How to know when you’re using active vs passive voice

Lots of us were trying to stay active all pandemic, even though we were stuck at home – but just as importantly, is your writing active or passive?

And why does it matter?

What is active and passive voice?

Active voice means that your voice (the subject of the sentence, usually a noun is at the start, followed by what your subject is doing (the verb), then the object the verb is happening to.

e.g. We (subject) offer (verb) default insurance (object) to eligible members (secondary object).

Passive voice means the object (the thing it’s happening to) is up front. This type of sentence is usually missing its subject (the person doing the thing).

e.g. Default insurance (object) is offered (verb) to eligible members (secondary object).

How do you know if you’re using passive voice?

You can tell if a sentence is missing its subject — and is therefore in passive voice — because you can add “by zombies” to the sentence and it will still make sense.

Image source: Wikipedia

e.g. Default insurance (object) is offered (verb) to eligible members … by zombies.

Why does everyone say you should write in active voice?

Now, here’s why you want to write in active voice whenever possible:

1. Readability. I like it when skimreaders (a.k.a. every busy person ever) can easily understand what I’m writing about. Readers’ brains like simple sentence constructions that are in active voice.

2. Less work for your brain. The active voice construction “subject, verb, object” is the first and most common one taught in English-speaking schools, so it’s harder work for your brain to remove the subject and construct a passive sentence.

3. Reduce risk of RSI. Passive voice sentences are typically much longer, with more words, which means more typing and more repetitive strain.

So save your brain and your wrists from the zombies, and write in active voice.

Common misunderstandings about active voice

One thing I’ve noticed is that sometimes writers, reviewers, and even less-educated editors will talk about “active voice” when they actually mean to talk about one of the 12 tenses in English — “present tense”, “future perfect tense”, etc.

Drives me nuts. Everyone thinks they’re a scholar, but they don’t have the degree or the self-education to give them a real foundation.

The difference between voice and tense is that while the voice changes the whole sentence structure, a tense only changes the verb (the doing word) or the adjective that describes that verb.

(More on how to use the tenses in a later post, if you want to get even more word nerdy.)

So if someone says to you, “This sentence needs to be in active voice.” and you can see that the structure is actually correct — subject, verb, object — then that someone is trying to tell you something about the sentence but it has nothing to do with active or passive voice.

You’ll need to ask that person questions to find out what they actually want to change in your sentence.

Image source: by Arnold Zwicky’s Blog

(C) TJ Withers-Ryan, 2022. Please credit me when you share or repost, thanks!