November 10, 2015

Active or Passive? Working with Different Voices

3 minute read

When you’re speaking or writing in English, everything in the language has a particular voice.

This isn’t a literal voice, of course – but just like the way a person uses their own voice to express different tones, feelings or meanings, you can also change the voice of the language you use.

Read on to find out more about the two main voices you use – the active and passive voices!

The active voice

The active voice is the most common one you will use in English. It’s used when the main subject in the sentence is doing the action, and the focus is kept on the subject.

For example:

“The cat jumped on the table and knocked the vase over.”

In this example, the cat is the subject, and it is clear that it’s carrying out the actions of jumping and knocking something over.

To use the active voice, you don’t need to modify the verb, and you can use it in any tense.

The passive voice

Unlike the active voice, in the passive voice, the emphasis isn’t on the subject that is “doing” the action. Instead, the focus is on the activity that happened, without really being concerned with who did it.

For example:

“A seat has been reserved for you.”

In this example, using the passive voice involves changing the verb, by adding the verb ‘to be’ along with the past participle of the verb.

Let’s take a look at comparing the two voices with some examples!

Active voice: “The hotel upgraded her room for free.”

Passive voice: “Her room was upgraded for free by the hotel.”

In the active voice, it shows that the subject, which is the hotel, carried out the action of upgrading a room. However in the passive voice, the focus is on the activity instead.

You can also use both voices in the present or future tenses:

Present tense

Active voice: “She is eating all of the cake.”

Passive voice: “All of the cake is being eaten by her.”

Future tense

Active voice: “Next year, we’re going to repair our dad’s vintage car.”

Passive voice: “Our dad’s vintage car will be repaired next year.”

As you can see in the examples above, when you use the passive tense, you must always use the verb ‘to be’ with the past participle of the verb described, no matter what tense you are.

Only the verb ‘to be’ is modified to express the tense of the sentence.

When to use which voice?

So when should you use the active or passive voices?

We often use the active voice commonly in most forms of written or spoken English, especially in informal writing or conversation. It is a clear way of expressing something, as it tells you who is doing what directly.

The passive voice can sometimes seem a little more difficult to understand, as the person or thing doing the action is not being emphasised.

It’s useful to use when you want to stress the activity carried out, or if you don’t want to mention who actually did it. It’s also more commonly used in formal writing – although you should be careful not to use it excessively, as it can be difficult to read!

Your turn

Practice using both voices by describing everyday activities and situations around you in the active and passive form. Can you notice a difference in tone or expression between them?