March 5, 2023
7 min read
There’s a good chance you’ve heard of active vs. passive voice. But can you tell the difference between the two?
If not, you’re not alone. These terms can be confusing if you don’t have experience studying or using them. Our helpful guide will explain what active vs. passive voice is, how to use them, and examples of each (as well as how to practice the two voices).
Active voice is a grammatical term that refers to instances where the sentence’s subject does the action. Here’s an example (We’ll revisit active voice examples later on).
The dog ate his dinner.
In this case, the subject — the dog — is the one doing the action (eating dinner). This makes it an active sentence.
When you’re using an active voice, the subject of your sentence will always be responsible for performing the action.
It doesn’t matter what verb is used. Active voice is all about how your sentence is structured. That’s why people are able to change a sentence that’s in the active voice to the passive voice — you’re just switching the sentence order. As long as the sentence’s subject is doing the action (the verb), it’s in the active voice.
You should aim to use active voice when you want your audience to direct their attention to your sentence’s subject and that action happening (as opposed to the target of the action). This will also give your audience more clarity and direction when you’re speaking or writing with the active voice.
For example, it’s usually best to use active voice when you’re writing:
Passive voice is another grammatical term that refers to instances where the verb acts on the subject. Let’s use the same example as above.
The dinner was eaten by the dog.
Here, the subject-verb agreement changes. The subject isn’t active anymore — it’s acting on the verb. In other words, it’s passive.
No matter what, every passive voice sentence will have two verbs:
In our above example, the main verb is “to eat,” or its past participle, “eaten.” The conjugated form of “to be” is “was,” so we get “was eaten.”
The direct object of that sentence (AKA the action’s target) is the focus. In that case, the direct object is the dinner.
Passive voice is best used when you’re looking for a more indirect tone. You might also want your audience to hone in on the direct object or the actual action instead of who’s responsible for the action.
Here’s an example. You’ll often hear passive voice during news reports. That’s because this type of voice can help show objectivity and soften the tone. Saying, “the man was shot by police” sounds less direct than “police shot the man.”
Check out the clip below and see if you can identify the active vs. passive voice:
It can also place a special emphasis on what happened. For example, in the sentence, “The mayor was poisoned on Wednesday afternoon” places more emphasis on the action of the mayor being poisoned than saying, “On Wednesday afternoon, someone poisoned the mayor.” The important person in the sentence is the mayor, and the latter places him at the end of the sentence.
Both passive and active voice can be used in reporting, of course, but you’ll likely hear at least a few passive voice examples during the 5 o’clock news.
English grammar has two types of voices: active and passive. One of the main differences between active and passive voice — besides the subject-verb relationship — is the length of the sentences.
Usually, active voice sentences are shorter. That’s because you’re eliminating the “middleman” verb — the conjugation of “to be” — and skipping straight to the main verb or action.
On the other hand, sentences with passive voice usually run longer. They often have prepositions or other extra words. Revisiting the above passive voice example — “the dinner was eaten by the dog” — we can immediately identify the preposition, which is “by.”
Another big difference people also point out is that using active voice is “better” than using passive voice. But contrary to popular belief, active voice isn’t necessarily better than passive voice.
If you remember from grade school (or if you’re a non-native English speaker and you remember this lesson), you might also recall your teacher instructing the class to avoid passive voice.
It really depends on what you’re writing.
Luckily, changing passive voice to active voice isn’t too complex.
If you’re practicing a speech or writing an essay, take a look at the passive voice you used. Sometimes, it’s even easier to identify active vs. passive voice when you read the text out loud. That way, you’ll be able to understand the tone and further identify active vs. passive voice.
Here’s how to change passive voice to active voice in four easy steps.
Let’s take the example, “The email was sent by Sanjay.” That’s a sentence written in the passive voice.
Let’s take a look at some more examples.
To better explain the difference in voice types, here are some respective examples.
As mentioned above, active voice is more direct and lets the subject of the sentence do the action. Active voice examples include:
Let’s take a look at those same examples, but in the passive voice. Here are those examples:
If your goal is to get more comfortable speaking in the active voice (or if you’re trying to learn how to speak in the passive voice), you’re in luck. You can use a speech coach like Yoodli to practice.
Yoodli is a speech coach that leverages artificial intelligence (AI) to assist users in their communication needs. When you upload (or record) a video on Yoodli, the communication coach provides you with instant analytics. These metrics can include insights on:
But how can you use Yoodli to actually practice these two types of voices?
There are a few ways you can practice active vs. passive voice with Yoodli.
First, when you upload (or record) a video of yourself practicing a speech, presentation, or interview responses, you’ll get a complete transcript of what you said. That way, you can directly identify passive voice (if you’re trying to avoid it) and change that to active voice.
If you’re a reporter trying to get more comfortable speaking in the passive voice, you can practice it that way too.
Yoodli also provides specific coaching comments that can also help. For example, Yoodli might reword what you say in the passive voice to be more active. It totally depends on the context of your speech and personal speaking patterns.
Active vs. passive voice is an important concept to understand, especially if you’re trying to improve your communication skills or if you’re learning how to speak eloquently. By getting comfortable with the two types, you’ll be able to know when to use which and become a more effective communicator.
Plus, now that you know about these types, you’ll be able to notice and identify them in conversations as well as other social situations.
Active vs. passive voice is an essential grammatical skill and understanding to perfect. It’s important to be able to tell the difference between these two voices, especially if you work in a career that prioritizes professional communication. If you’re a student, it’s arguably even more important for you to learn the difference between the two.
Even though the active voice is more direct and passive voice is lengthier and has a more subtle tone, one isn’t better than the other — they’re both useful in their respective ways.
Using Yoodli to help you identify where and when you use active vs. passive voice can improve your overall communication and confidence in both writing and speaking.
Getting better at speaking is getting easier. Record or upload a speech and let our AI Speech Coach analyze your speaking and give you feedback.