What is active voice? Active voice places an emphasis on the thing that is performing an action, rather than on the action itself.
Even as the voice most often used in modern writing, there’s a formula to using it correctly – from the words that lend themselves to active voice to how to construct the sentence to understanding when you should use it.
What Are the Basic Rules of Active Voice?
We will sort out all the details below, but for now, refresh your memory with these must-know terms…
Subject. A noun in the sentence that is either performing the action or is having an action done to it … Voice. Refers to the subject that is either performing the verb or is having the verb done to it … Verb. The action that a noun is doing … Direct object. The thing in the sentence that is receiving the action … Past participle. A verb with –ed at the end to indicate that it happened in the past.
The number one rule of active voice is to begin the sentence with its subject.
The goal is to bring attention to the person or thing performing an action.
If this were math (which it basically is, with words), the formula would be subject + verb + object = active voice.
Let’s say you wanted to write a sentence about a kid about to sneak a piece of candy on Halloween night. It might look something like this:
Benny reached for the piece of candy at the top of the stash that he collected while trick-or-treating.
Benny is performing the action, so Benny is the subject. What did he do? He reached. So reached is the verb. What did he reach for? The candy. So the candy is receiving the action from Benny, which makes the candy the object. To mimic the formula, it would be:
Benny + reached + the candy
subject + verb + object
The subject, verb, and object will remain the same even in different verb tenses. Like such:
Simple present: Benny reaches for the piece of candy
Present continuous: Benny is reaching for the piece of candy
Present perfect: Benny has reached for the piece of candy
Simple past: Benny reached for the piece of candy
Past continuous: Benny was reaching for the piece of candy
Past perfect: Benny had reached for the piece of candy
Future simple: Benny will reach for the piece of candy
Future perfect: Benny will have reached for the piece of candy
Active Voice is Everywhere
The following examples need little introduction. They are excerpts from incredible works by classic and contemporary authors alike, each exemplifying what it means to be an artist of words and master of active voice.
What Is the Difference Between Active and Passive Voice?
There’s a risk in sounding like Captain Obvious, but we’re willing to take it: Active and passive voices are opposite approaches to the same thing.
Where passive voice places an emphasis on the thing receiving the action, active voice emphasizes who is performing the act.
Here are a few examples:
Active voice: Angela danced a waltz to “Moon River”.
Passive voice: A waltz was danced to “Moon River” by Angela.
In active voice, we see a clear message – Angela danced a waltz to the song “Moon River”. In the passive voice example, the message remains the same, Angela is dancing a waltz to Moon River, but it isn’t as easy to decipher the message as it is in the active voice.
Sometimes the difference in active and passive is a matter of artistic preference but then other times it comes down to too many words muddying what could be a clear message.
Active voice: The bee pollinated the sunflower.
Passive voice: The sunflower was pollinated by the bee.
This one is pretty clear-cut. The message remains the same in both examples. The difference really is all about what you want to emphasize. Is the bee meant to be the focus of the sentence? If yes, then go with an active voice. If the sunflower is supposed to be the star of the show, then passive voice is your go-to.
Active voice: Annie read Breakfast at Tiffany’s on her flight to New York.
Passive voice: Breakfast at Tiffany’s was read by Annie on her flight to New York.
This is another case of less is more. Too many words can sometimes cause the point to get lost in the muck. The more a reader has to sort through, the harder it is for them to get the point of your message. Your goal as a writer is to be efficient yet succinct. Active voice, in this case, is the best way to go.
Active voice: Ben ran in the annual turkey trot on Thanksgiving morning.
Passive voice: The annual turkey trot was run by Ben on Thanksgiving morning.
This is a case of shifting messages. In the active voice, it seems that Ben participated in the annual turkey trot as an athlete. In the passive voice, it morphs into a message communicating that Ben was in charge of the turkey trot.
It’s important to ask yourself what you mean to say, then make sure you use the appropriate voice to communicate that point. Every single sentence matters. Make them count.
When Should I Use Active Voice?
Honestly? Pretty much always. There are times when passive voice is appropriate over active voice but they are rare in comparison to times when active voice is the better choice.
Using an active voice keeps the message clear– and if you’re wanting to keep your readers with you for the long haul, it’s best to avoid messing around with wordy sentences (which passive voice tends to do).
Active voice brings the reader into the here and now by getting straight to the point.
Artistically speaking, though, there are times when a character might speak in a passive voice for any number of reasons. Maybe they’re being coy and will speak in a passive voice to give their dialogue partner the run around. Or maybe your purpose of a particular chapter or paragraph or sentence is meant to emphasize the object instead of the subject (the thing receiving the action as opposed to the person doing the action). Heck, maybe it’s just your style and you think it sounds cool. If that’s the case, go for the passive voice. Just know that active voice is here for you as a major tool for communication that drives home any message you need your reader to know.