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How to Write in Active Voice

Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature and is completing a Ph.D. He has taught college English for 6 years.

Writers are often told to write in an active voice without an explanation of what that actually means. This lesson will explain the difference between active and passive voice and why active voice can make your writing more succinct and dynamic.

Active and Passive Sentences

Many a writer has had an editor or teacher write ''passive voice'' on their writing and say that it is wrong but not explain why. Technically, using passive voice is not grammatically incorrect and can be useful in certain situations, but in general, writing in active voice will make your writing more succinct and dynamic. So, what is the difference between active voice and passive voice? And why is active voice generally better? Let's investigate.

Word Order

The difference between active voice and passive voice comes down to word order or the arrangement of words in a sentence. English is a language whose sentences are constructed in what's called an S-V-O word order. S-V-O stands for Subject-Verb-Object and refers to the typical order of words in a sentence.

Subject: The subject of a sentence is a noun, and it is the noun that is doing the action.

Verb: A verb is a word that describes an action, and in this case, it refers to the action that the subject is doing.

Object: The object is another noun, and it is the thing that is having the action done to it as opposed to doing the action.

Let's look at some examples.

  • Mary threw the ball.

In this example, 'threw' is the verb or action. So, who is doing the action? Mary is, so she is the subject. The ball was having the action done to it, so that makes it the object.

Let's try another one:

  • The dog bit John in the leg.

The verb is 'bit,' and the dog is the one doing the biting, so he is the subject. Since John got bit, he is the object.

Passive Voice

Both of these examples we just looked at are in an active voice because the subject comes before the verb. But what if we flipped the order?

  • The ball was thrown by Mary.
  • John was bit on the leg by the dog.

Well, now we have passive voice. In passive voice, the object comes first, and the verb has to have some form of ''is'' (what we call the 'to be' verbs) in order for it to make sense.

You have probably already noticed that both of these sentences just don't sound as good anymore. They are wordier because of the addition of 'was' and 'by,' and they just sound kind of awkward. That's because in English we are used to the subject coming first in most cases.

Changing Passive to Active Voice

So, if you get a paper back that has been marked for passive voice, how do you fix it? Well, start with the verb.

  • The paper was presented by Joe to the class.

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