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Active vs. Passive Voice

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Overview:

Using the passive voice in academic writing is one of the most common writing problems that college students struggle with. Simply stated, sentences that contain the passive voice are often too wordy and lack focus, which makes it difficult for your reader to understand your main point. In the active voice, the subject performs the action, whereas in the passive voice, the subject receives the action. In other words, active voice is usually more direct and lively while passive voice is less direct and more descriptive.

Note the contrast in these sentences:

  1. My cell phone was misplaced by me. (Passive)
  2. I misplaced my cell phone. (Active)
  1. The door was shut with great force. (Passive)
  2. The door slammed. (Active)
  1. My car was stolen (by someone). (Passive)
  2. Someone stole my car. (Active)

In order to ensure an active voice in your writing, choose an active verb and pair it directly next to the subject. Forms of the verb be (be, am, is, are, was, were, being, been) are passive and do not convey action.  Though these words do have legitimate uses, if an active verb works, use it.

In the active version below, the subject directly performs the action.

By then, the movie will have been completely edited by the producers. (Passive)

By then, the producers will have completely edited the movie. (Active)

An unclear subject can also result in passive sentences

Mistakes were made. (Passive Voice)

We made mistakes. (Active Voice)

Style Matters:

Whether to write in the active or passive voice is a matter of choice and style. Generally, academic writing is most effective and clear in the active voice. You can tell that you overuse the passive voice when you proofread a paragraph and discover your sentences have wordy, complicated expressions. Look through an essay and see how often verb phrases with “to be” appear throughout your writing. Be creative and learn to experiment with new arrangements of words, and try to choose verbs that convey direct meaning and that can stand alone without the use of helping verbs.


Copyright (C) 2010. All rights reserved.

this handout is part of a library of instructional materials used in California State University, Long Beach’s writing center, the Writer’s Resource Lab. Educators and students are welcome to distribute copies as long as they do so with attribution to all organizations and authors. Commercial distribution is prohibited.