Passive Voice vs Active Voice

Updated September 29, 2017
Teachers love to tell students to use the active voice because it tends to make sentences shorter, clearer, and more impactful. But is it really a crime to write in the passive voice? Absolutely not. In many cases, the passive voice is actually preferable to the active voice. However, it does present many dangers that could make our writing wordy or unclear. Let’s define the active and passive voices, then discuss some potential problems with passive writing.

Examples of Active and Passive Voices
Whether a sentence is active or passive depends on the relationship between the verb and the subject. In the active voice, a subject performs a verb. For example:
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar scored 38,387 points in his career.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (subject) scored (verb) 38,387 points (object).

In the passive voice, the subject is switched, so the object of the active sentence becomes the subject of the passive sentence.
38,387 points were scored by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in his career.
Unlike the subject in the active voice, the subject in the passive voice does nothing. In other words, the subject, points, takes no action. Instead, the points are acted upon.

Another example of an active sentence:
My parents bought groceries for my sister’s birthday party.
The subject of the sentence, the parents, performs the action of buying groceries. The parents are the focus of the sentence.

However, in the passive voice, the subject is switched, so the object of the active sentence becomes the subject in the passive.
Groceries were bought by my parents for my sister’s birthday party.
The subject, or focus, of the sentence takes no action. Instead, the groceries are acted upon by the parents.

Problems with Passive Voice
A passive voice can create confusion; it often disrupts rhythm and makes a sentence harder to understand. In many cases, verbs and subjects become vague or ambiguous.
Evidence was presented to support the idea that homelessness is experienced by more than 600,000 people.
A couple questions: Who is presenting this evidence? And how is the number of homeless people an idea? Also, because the subject, the evidence, doesn’t perform any action, the sentence is inherently confusing.

Let’s clarify this sentence with a few simple fixes:
The U.S. Census Bureau estimated the number of homeless people at 600,000.
Here, the U.S. Census Bureau becomes the subject who drives the estimation of the number of homeless people. The focus of the sentence has shifted, creating a simple, straightforward structure. Another example:
A talk was given by the college professor; she cited a paper that said homelessness went down last year.
Again, the subject of the sentence, the “talk,” doesn’t do anything. Here, the passive voice creates a clunky break that requires a semicolon to keep the sentence grammatically correct. The subject of the first part of the sentence is the “talk,” but the talk doesn’t cite the paper, the professor does. See how confusing the subject can become in a passive sentence?
The college professor cited a paper stating homelessness decreased last year.
By changing the subject of the sentence to the doer of the action (the college professor), we get a simple, easy to read statement.

How to Identify the Passive Voice
The easiest way to identify the passive voice is to look for the following in any sentence:
passive voice = form of “to be” + past participle (verb)
A past participle is a verb that takes the past tense form. Look for it in conjunction with a form of “to be,” which usually includes words like is, are, am, was, were, has been, have been, had been, will be, will have been, and being. Also, look for the need to attribute the perceived doer of action with the word “by.”
When the car was driven by the racer, he sped out of control and hit the guardrail.

Reasons to Use the Passive Voice
Remember, we want our writing to be clear. So when we talk about passive versus active voices, keep in mind that either voice can work, depending on the situation. Here are a few occasions where the passive voice may be preferable to the active voice:
  1. When the agent is more important than the subject. Take the example: “My car was hit.” We want to focus on the car itself, since we care more about the car being damaged than we do about who damaged the car.
  2. When the agent of action is a secret or an authoritative figure. Take common disclaimers like “Trespassers will be prosecuted,” or “Access is denied.”
  3. When we want variety in our writing. Any kind of writing, no matter how active, tends to grow dull after awhile. Sentence rhythm and structure will feel stilted and repetitive, especially when each sentence is focused only on the drivers of action.

PaperRater will help you construct active sentences
In addition to grammar correction, PaperRater also performs a “Passive Voice” analysis that automatically scans your document for passive sentence constructions.

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Effective Use of Sentence Length

The issue of sentence length leaves many writers scratching their heads. Short, long, medium length sentences - which are better? Does it make a difference? Why should we pay attention to sentence length anyway?

For one, it adds as much meaning to a text as the words you choose. Sentence length conveys a specific mood and rhythm and matches the actions being described. For example, if you were writing a tense car race, shorter sentences may help heighten the suspense of the scene. On the other hand, longer sentences may work better when writing about complex philosophical abstractions.

Let’s look at a couple examples.

“As the number one car slammed its brakes around the turn, my foot hit the gas, and I swung around him, crossing the finish line and winning the race.”

It’s not bad, but let’s see what happens when we break it up into several sentences.

“The number one car slammed its brakes around the turn. My foot hit the gas, and I swung around him. I crossed the finish line, winning the race.”

We find that shorter sentences help tighten the action, accentuating the descriptions of “slamming the brakes,” “hitting the gas” and “crossing the finish line.”

Other texts may demand longer sentences:

“Descartes stated that the mind is mental. The body is physical. Mind and body are, therefore, not identical. This is the mind-body problem.

Philosophical problems are often complex and may work better with longer sentences and more description:

“Descartes stated that since the mind is mental and the body physical, the two cannot be identical. This dilemma is known as the mind-body problem.”

See how much clearer this version reads? The longer sentence length creates a nice, flowing structure that leads logically from one idea to the next.

Let’s look at more examples in which short and long sentences can be problematic, followed by some strategies for correcting them.

Short Sentences

Short sentences are useful for supplying small bits of information. They cut to the chase and emphasize one, maybe two, points. But, their stop-and-start rhythms can make them difficult to read:

“Short sentences are hard to read. They stop and start. What happens when you read them? You feel like you’re stuttering. They break up the thought process. Sometimes they’re useful. Other times they’re not. They’re frustrating. Right?”

How do we stretch out these short sentences so they’re not so clunky? Try lengthening them with conjunctions, which are words that join two sentences, or independent clauses, together.

Specifically, let’s look at coordinating and subordinating conjunctions. Coordinating conjunctions include words like and, but, or, nor, for, yet and so. Common subordinating conjunctions include although, because, once, unless, wherever and many, many more. Read a complete list of them here.

Let’s rework our short-sentence paragraph:

“Short sentences are hard to read because they stop and start, making you feel like you’re stuttering. Although they’re useful for breaking up the thought process, they can be quite frustrating to read. What do you think?”

See how conjunctions create a simple chain of ideas to help round out the sentences’ rhythms? Try using them the next time you find yourself writing sentences that are too short or do not reflect the proper mood.

Long Sentences

Long sentences provide more detail and information than shorter sentences and are used to investigate in-depth ideas. However, they, too, can be problematic, for repeated use of long sentences can bore the reader. They may also become difficult to read, since the reader must hold several ideas in his or her head at once.

Let’s look at an example of a long, somewhat complicated sentence:

“Although I prefer to write long sentences, they are also problematic, as they quickly become boring and long-winded; in turn, their inherent difficulty can disengage the reader, causing him or her to stop reading.”

It’s not a completely terrible sentence, but it is long, complex and may be more effective if we break it up into several sentences:

“Although I prefer to write long sentences, they quickly become boring and long-winded. They’re also difficult to read and may cause the reader to stop reading.”

See how our points become sharper? Instead of five or six ideas, each sentence contains two, making them easily digestible.

How Can PaperRater Help You With Your Sentence Length?

Check out PaperRater’s FREE sentence length module (part of its online proofreader and grammar correction) to help keep your sentence length within an acceptable range. 

By analyzing the amount of short and long sentences in your document, we’ll show you where you might need improvement on lengthening or cutting down your work. Instantly improve your writing by combining our sentence length tool with our spelling, grammar, transitional phrases module and more!