Definition of active voice
English verbs have two voices: active voice and passive voice. It is important to know the difference between active and passive voice. In active voice, the person acting is clear: “The manager wrote the report yesterday.” The person acting is the manager.
In passive voice, the person acting isn’t specified: “The report was written yesterday.” It could have been written by the secretary, the manager, or Albert Einstein—we don’t know.
The sentence is still in passive voice if the actor is specified later in the sentence: “The report was written yesterday by the manager.”
Why use active voice?
Passive voice makes the writing unclear by keeping the identity of the actor secret. At times the identity is obvious, but often it isn’t. Even if the reader has an idea of who the actor is, passive voice creates weak sentences that don’t communicate immediately and emphatically.
This report is made up entirely of passive voice sentences:
The pipeline was inspected and was found to have cracks at three joints. The decision was made to replace the three joints and a contractor was engaged. After the work was completed, the leaks stopped.
Change the passive voice sentences to active voice unless you have a good reason to use passive voice:
The foreman inspected the pipeline and discovered cracks at three joints. The plant maintenance manager decided to replace the three joints and had the contracting department engage a contractor. After the contractor completed the work, the leaks stopped.
Now the reader knows who discovered the cracks, who decided to replace them, who engaged the contractor, and who did the work. When issues come up about the pipeline and what happened, the reader won’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to discover who was involved.
Two special cases for active voice
Two ways of writing sentences are active, even though they may look like the text contains no actor:
1. Sentences with “you understood.”
This sentence doesn’t look like it has an actor, but the actor is “you understood,” meaning we know that the subject is “you,” even though we don’t use “you” in the sentence. This is an example:
Call the client about meeting on Thursday.
The “you” isn’t in that sentence, but we know it means “You call the client about the meeting on Thursday.” That is called “you understood,” meaning we understand the actor is “you.” As a result, it is in active voice.
2. Sentences with one subject and two verbs joned by “and.”The second way of writing an active sentence that may look like the sentence has no actor is when the sentence has two verbs with one subject. This is an example:
Brian met with the managers and told them about the merger.
“Brian” is the actor. The first part of the sentence is obviously active: “Brian met.” However, the second part is also active: “told them about the merger.” The reason is that Brian is still the actor. It is as though the sentence were, “Brian met with the managers and Brian told them about the merger.” In our language, we just drop the second “Brian.” We know it’s the same actor.
This sentence is also in active voice because “you understood” applies to both the first action and second action:
Call the client about the meeting on Thursday and ask whether the time will work for her.
The actor is “you understood.” The sentence could be rewritten “You call the client about the meeting on Thursday and you ask whether the time will work for her.”
One special case that is passive voice
A sentence is considered in passive voice if the actor follows the verb:
The managers were told about the merger by Brian.
That sentence is in passive voice. It is weak and not as clear as an active-voice sentence. This is the same sentence in active voice:
Brian told the managers about the merger.
Use passive voice sparingly
Business writers should use the passive voice very sparingly. Use passive voice only when you do not know the actor, you want to hide the identity of the actor, or the actor is not important to the meaning of the sentence.
Changing passive voice to active voice
To change passive voice to active, identify the performer of the action. If the performer is in a “by the” phrase, simply move the performer to the subject position, just before the verb. If the writer did not name a performer, choose a subject that fits the context. “The test results will be announced next week” easily becomes “We will announce the test results next week” or “The researchers will announce the test results next week.”
Avoid mixing active and passive voice in the same sentence. The first half of this sentence is active, but the second half is passive: “We found the lost contract, and the client was notified immediately.” Instead, use active voice throughout: “We found the lost contract and notified the client immediately.”
Business writers should prefer active voice for most documents. Active voice is more direct and concise than passive voice. Passive voice is often awkward and evasive. Readers may interpret passive voice as an attempt to avoid admitting responsibility, as in the following example:
“A mistake was made that resulted in an overcharge to your account that has now been corrected and will be shown on your next statement.”
Active voice sounds more responsible: “Our data entry clerk made a mistake and overcharged your account, but she corrected the entry. Your next statement will show the correction.”
Use active voice at all times unless you have a good reason to use passive.
Practice changing passive voice to active voice
Change the passive-voice constructions in these sentence to to active voice. Look for the actor in each sentence. The sentence must contain the actor, positioned before the verb.
Write your answer in the boxes below the sentences before comparing your sentences with the samples. When you are finished, close this window to return to your assignments page.
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