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  • Writer's pictureSara Kuehl

Active vs. Passive Voice: When to Use Each for Stronger Writing

What's the difference between active voice and passive voice? Learn how to spot them and when to use them to improve your writing.


The U.S. Government has declared passive voice “one of the biggest problems with government writing.”


Yikes.


If you’ve ever worked with a professional editor—or used a tool like Grammarly—you’ve probably seen sentences flagged for passive voice. Maybe you’ve heard a teacher, coworker, or publisher rail against the evils of passive voice. (OK, that may be over the top, but you get the idea.)


You might not understand exactly what the passive voice is, but you know to avoid it!


Now, what if I told you passive voice isn’t all bad? 🤨

…passive voice is not grammatically incorrect? 😯

…there are moments when you actually should use the passive voice? 🤯


It’s true! While active voice is usually stronger, passive voice has its place. That’s part of the fun (and frustration) of writing.


In this post, we’ll explore:


Active Voice vs. Passive Voice

First, a quick grammar lesson. Sentences typically have 3 things:

  • a subject (who or what does the action)

  • a verb (the action)

  • an object (who or what the action is done to)

With active voice, those 3 things usually appear in that order: subject → verb → object. The subject is the focus of the sentence and performs the action.


Let’s take my dog, Kaia, as an example:

  • Subject = Kaia

  • Verb = fetch

  • Object = ball

Active: Kaia fetched the ball.


With passive voice, the order is often reversed: object → verb → subject. The object is the focus of the sentence, and the subject receives the action.


Passive: The ball was fetched by Kaia.


The passive sentence sounds awkward, doesn’t it? While the active sentence is clear and to the point.


Why Is It Better to Use Active Voice than Passive Voice?

Writing mostly in the active voice is good practice for several reasons. Active voice makes it clear who is doing what—which builds trust—while passive voice can be confusing. Sentences written in active voice are usually shorter than sentences in passive voice, so they’re easier to read.

Active Voice

Passive Voice

Clearer

Less clear

Specific

Vague

More concise

Wordy

Shows who is responsible for the action

Masks who is responsible for the action

Bureaucratic writing often uses the passive voice to avoid taking responsibility. Take the classic political non-apology “Mistakes were made.” Rather than plainly stating, “I messed up,” countless politicians have used passive voice to acknowledge errors in a vague way without taking responsibility for them.


Notice how “Mistakes were made” takes the passive voice up a notch? The subject is missing entirely!


That’s one of the biggest dangers of passive voice: it obscures who is responsible for what. And it’s one reason why many editors, teachers, style guides—and yes, even the U.S. Government—prefer the active voice.


How to Identify Passive Voice

So now that we know the difference between active voice and passive voice, how do you identify passive voice?


Try adding “by monkeys” to the end of your sentence. (h/t Monzo) If the sentence still makes sense, you’re probably using passive voice. 🙊

  • Mistakes were made… by monkeys. → Passive

  • I made a mistake… by monkeys. → Active

Cartoon illustrating how to identify passive voice by adding "by monkeys" to the end of the sentence.
Image: https://sketchplanations.com/by-monkeys

When Is It OK to Use Passive Voice?

While active voice tends to be the better choice for most sentences, you can still use passive voice in appropriate places.


Here are 4 instances when you should use passive voice:

  1. When you don’t know who is performing the action

  2. When it doesn’t matter who is performing the action

  3. When you want to highlight the object

  4. When you want to show fairness or remove bias

Let’s take a look at examples of each.


When You Don't Know Who Is Performing the Action

It makes sense to use passive voice when you don’t know who did something. Let’s say there was a car accident, but the unidentified driver fled the scene.


✅ Passive: Anna was injured in a hit-and-run accident.

[We don’t know who was driving, but we do know the result.]


When It Doesn't Matter Who Is Performing the Action

If it’s irrelevant who performs the action in a sentence, that’s another appropriate place for the passive voice. Think about announcements of business hours.


✅ Passive: The library will be closed for the holiday.

[We don't need to know who's closing the library. We just care that it’s closing.]


Another common example is when you’re explaining a topic or providing background information.


✅ Passive: NFTs were introduced in 2014.

[Who created NFTs may not be important if you’re simply providing context.]


When You Want to Highlight the Object

Consider using passive voice when writing about awards, accreditation, and other accomplishments. Who gives the award is not usually the highlight—who wins the award is.


In this example from a nonprofit annual report, I used passive voice to spotlight the students who received the grants, instead of the organizations that awarded the grants.

Professional editor highlighting where they chose to use passive voice and active voice in a nonprofit annual report

This page is all about the Student Ambassadors. Using passive voice in this callout keeps the focus where it belongs: on the Student Ambassadors.


✅ Passive: Our Student Ambassadors were awarded $7,500 in grants to fund their initiatives.

[The focus is on the Student Ambassadors.]


❌ Active: The ABC Foundation awarded $7,500 in grants to fund our Student Ambassadors’ initiatives.

[The focus is on the foundation awarding the grants.]


In higher education, students often consider accreditation when deciding where to apply. So universities will usually note the accrediting body in their marketing materials. In this FAQ I wrote for an online degree program, I chose to use passive voice to emphasize the program, not the accreditor.


editor's example of the correct use of passive voice

✅ Passive: Degrees are accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges.

[The focus is on the university’s degree programs.]


❌ Active: The Western Association of Schools and Colleges accredits degrees.

[The focus is on the accreditor.]


When You Want to Show Fairness or Remove Bias

You may see a lot of passive voice in scientific research. Here, writers strive for an objective tone focused on the facts, rather than their opinions.


✅ Passive: Eighty high school students were invited to participate in the study.

[This statement of fact does not draw unnecessary attention to the researcher who conducted the study.]


AI Doesn't Always Get It Right

While AI is all the rage right now, it doesn’t replace the need for a human editor.


Grammar and editing tools do a great job of catching instances of passive voice. But they’re not so skilled with nuance.


Avoiding passive voice is not a hard-and-fast rule. If you accept all AI-suggested changes without a second thought, it potentially weakens your writing.


There are appropriate situations to use passive voice. When you recognize those moments, you can use both active voice and passive voice for optimal effect in your writing.

Image by Josefin

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