What is Active Voice in Writing? Definition, Tips, and Examples

This is a guide covering Active Voice in Writing.

You have read it repeated in almost every book on writing; heard it at every writing seminar; and, if you are aspiring to be a writer, you have probably observed it in every great piece of writing.

It is the most basic writing advice out there: always write in the active voice. 

A verb in a sentence can convey a lot of things. It can show action, mood, several subjects, and tense, et cetera.

But one of the essential functions of the verb is its voice. 

There are two types of voices in English grammar: Active Voice and Passive Voice. 

We’ll touch a little on the passive voice, but this article will focus on the active voice. What makes a sentence in the active voice so special?

Why do great writers — like George Orwell— recommend using this voice almost exclusively? 

We are about to find out the power of using the active voice, its definition, and its meaning. We will also illustrate the usefulness of the active voice along with suitable examples. 

Active Voice in writing

What is Active Voice in Writing (Definition)?

Basic English sentences consist of a subject, a verb, and an object (direct). 

Example: I drink the water. 

Example: He eats lunch. 

In the sentences above, we are clear on the subject and what the subject is doing, i.e. I (subject), drink (verb), and water (object). 

The subject of the sentence is clearly doing an action (he is drinking water). This is an active voice. 

So, we can say that the active voice is when the subject of a sentence is the doer or actor of an action. Instead of being acted upon, the subject performs the action or carries out the action on an object. 

To understand the active voice more clearly, let’s look at a passive sentence and how that changes the whole voice and tone of the sentence. 

Example: The ball was kicked by me. 

This is an example of the passive voice. Notice how the subject (the ball) is not the performer of the action, but it is receiving the action. 

This difference between whether the subject is the performer of the action or the receiver of the action is what differentiates the active voice from the passive. 

When to Use Active Voice in Writing?

So when to use the active voice? Or, to put it another way, why would you use the active voice? 

George Orwell in his essay Politics and the English Language advises writers to “never use the passive where you can use the active.”

You should know when to use this useful tool that the great wordsmiths swear will transform your writing. 

The active voice is punchier, clearer, and assertive. If you don’t want to confuse the readers with convoluted writing, choose to write in the active voice. 

Example:

I will always remember my trip to Europe. (Active voice)

My trip to Europe will always be remembered by me. (Passive voice)

In the example above, the first sentence jumps right at you with a clear structure and meaning. That is the essence of active writing, and that is why it is so highly recommended that you write in the active voice. 

When you write in the active voice, your writing is transparent and it is easier for readers to understand; but if you write in the passive, you will lose your readers in a maze of wordiness and convoluted meanings because passive voice makes your writing hard to understand. 

Hemingway wrote almost exclusively in the active style. He is also known to be the master of constructing clear, concise, and short sentences that were just brimming with action. 

Active voice in writing is the hallmark of clear communication. It is direct and tells what happened and who did what in as few words as possible, thereby, avoiding a major pitfall of bad writing: wordiness. 

So to answer the question, when should you use the active voice in writing, the answer is almost exclusively except when:

  •  emphasizing the action 

Example: The bill was passed unanimously by Congress. 

  • avoiding the responsibility for a blame 

Example: Mistakes were made. (Ben Bernanke after the 2008 market collapse)

  • ordering or instructing 

Example: Smoking is not allowed. 

  • emphasizing the subject

Example: Mr. Watson was killed in a car accident.

Why is it Called Active Voice?

It is called the active voice because there is an active subject in the sentence. An active subject performs a certain task, therefore, it is called an active voice. 

On the other hand, in the passive constructions, as we have seen, the subject is not active but a passive recipient of an action, hence, such sentences are called passive sentences. 

Example: 

John hammered the nail into the wall. (active voice) Here, we can clearly see who performed the action of ‘hammering the nail’. As there is a clear action being taken by the subject, it is called the active voice. 

How do You Write in Active Voice?

Not every sentence that you write will be perfect right off the bat. That’s why rewriting is an essential second or third step to writing well.

According to the book On Writing Well by William Zinsser, “a clear sentence is no accident.”

The bulk of your rewriting will consist of making stylistic choices, i.e. removing redundancies, wordiness, and activating verbs and sentences. 

Revise your sentence constructions, and deliberately make the choice of activating your sentences by writing them in the active voice. Sentences in the active voice are clearer and easy to understand and your readers will thank you for it. 

So how do you make your sentences active? 

First, you have to identify the usual suspects of passive writing. There are three easily identifiable culprits here:

  • A passive sentence will have a ‘to be’ form of the verb. (is, am, are, et cetera). 

Example: 

The pizza was delivered by Kevin. 

In the sentence above ‘was’ is the ‘to be’ form of the verb.

  • passive sentences will usually have a ‘by …’ phrase. 

Example:

The boy was bitten by the dog. 

‘by the dog’ is your clue that the sentence is passive, and therefore, needs to be edited to reflect the proper voice.  If you keep an eye out for these major passive voice identifiers, you will be well on your way to writing clear and concise sentences. 

Active Voice vs. Passive Voice

 Active VoicePassive Voice
1.Sentences with active voice are clearSentences with a passive voice are convoluted
2.The verbs are infused with energyThe verbs lack energy and they appear bland within the sentences
3.Verbs in the active voice carry the story forward.Verbs in the passive voice are passive and cannot move the story forward by way of action
4.The sentences with active construction are short and conciseThe sentences with a passive construction are long
5.The sentences are bereft of wordinessThe sentences are wordy

What are Examples of Using an Active Voice?

Here are a few examples of using the active voice:

  • Usually when he smelled the land breeze he woke up and dressed to go and wake the boy. — Ernest Hemingway, The Oldman and the Sea
  • Researchers conducted a study on the effects of the drug on a person’s psychological behavior. 
  • Brad Pitt played the Greek god Achilles in the movie The Troy.
  • China puts growth ahead of climate with surge in coal-powered steel mills. — Financial Times

Final Remarks

Almost every accomplished writer will tell to write in the active voice.

The active voice not only activates your sentences, carrying the story forward, but they are also a great way to make your writing easy to understand. 

Good writing does not sound pretentious and overly pedantic. It is direct, concise, and clear. Use the active voice almost exclusively, except under the circumstances highlighted in the article. 

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