How to Change Passive Voice to Active Voice

Instructor: Margaret Stone

Margaret has taught both college and high school English and has a master's degree in English.

When you are writing, there are many techniques you can utilize to make your work more interesting to read. In this lesson, we will look at the two voices that verbs can have, active and passive, and we will learn how to change from passive voice to active voice to make our writings both clearer and more engaging.

Active Voice vs. Passive Voice

Sentences written in active voice show the subject in action. For example, it is easy to identify the person who is doing the action in the following sentence:

  • Mother shrieked when she saw the mouse.

In this sentence, the subject, mother, who performed the action, shrieked, is clear. The writer of this sentences shows a specific subject in action. Thus, this sentence is using active voice.

Passive voice occurs when the subject is not doing the action, but rather receiving the action. For example:

  • The books were left on the desk.

In this sentence, the subject, books, received the action of being left. Because the subject is not performing the action, but rather is having the action done to it, this sentence is using passive voice.

Active voice makes sentences clear, direct, and concise.

When Is Passive Voice Used?

Although it is usually better to use active voice, there are a few occasions when passive voice is a better option. If the writer does not have the information or the specifics on who performed the action, then passive voice can be a good choice. For example, if a newspaper reporter is writing a story about a crime in which the perpetrator has not been identified, passive voice may be a good choice: 'The First National Bank was robbed today.'

Another occasion for using passive voice occurs when the writer wants to de-emphasize the person performing the action in a sentence. For example, 'A new housing development is set to be built at the end of the year.' In this case, the writer is more interested in the new development than on the person who is building it.

How to Change Passive Voice to Active Voice

A general rule of writing is to avoid writing wordy sentences, and wordy sentences are often the result of writing in passive voice. However, sentences utilizing active voice tend to give more information and be more specific, which results in clear, direct, concise sentences. As such, when writing, you may need to change some of your passive sentences to active sentences.

As we saw earlier, if the subject of the sentence is performing the action, active voice is being used. So, to change passive voice to active voice, the writer makes the doer of the action the subject of the sentence.

An easy way to change passive voice to active voice is to ask yourself, 'Who performs the action in this sentence?' For example, by asking this question of the following sentence, we can identify who performs the action.

  • The books were left on the desk by Jim.

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