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How to Write in Active Voice

Framed in black border box the words Grammar Tip Tuesday in black letters beneath that the words active voice is written in red
#grammartiptuesday on active voice

You may have heard that active voice will make your writing more clear and less clunky, but it might be hard to remember how to recognize that you've unintentionally fallen into passive voice. If you want to be more intentional about using the active voice in your writing, you need to know the difference between active and passive voice. You will also need to know the ways to identify passive voice sentences during the revision process.

What is Active and Passive Voice?

Whether your sentence is in active or passive voice is determined by the placement of the subject and its action verb.

If the voice of the sentence is "active," it means that there is a clear and direct connection between the action being done and who is performing the action.

It follows an actor (noun/pronoun) and action (verb) format.

An example of an active voice sentence: I (actor) wrote (verb) the book for writing teachers.

If the voice of a sentence is passive, the performer of the action is not clear or is missing.

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Why Active Voice Matters

Examples of Active and Passive Voice Sentences

"You stole the cookie from the cookie jar." (active)

"A cookie was stolen." (passive)

"The cookie was stolen by my little brother." (passive)

text box with definition of passive voice
Passive voice works differently

4 Quick Ways to Test if Your Sentence is an Active Voice:

  1. Ask yourself, "What is happening, and who or what is making it happen?"

  2. Make sure the subject of the sentence comes before the verb and not after it.

  3. Avoid forms of the verb "to be" (is, are, was, were) before action verbs.

  4. Watch out for prepositions.

From the sentence, "You stole the cookie from the cookie jar," we learn what happened: The cookie was stolen. And, we also know who stole the cookie: You

In the second sentence, "A cookie was stolen," we know also learn what happened: A cookie was stolen, but the sentence does not include who stole the cookie. Instead it contains a form of the helping verb was before the action stolen.

*Seeing a helping verb before the verb gives us a clue that the sentence is passive.

In the third sentence, "The cookie was stolen by my little brother," we are also told what happened: The cooke was stolen. And, we know indirectly that it was stolen by my little brother. Yet, the reader has to wait until the end of the sentence to discover who stole the cookie. In addition, the subject is not the performer of the action. The cookie is the subject and my little brother is the object of the preposition by (other prepositions that you might find at the end of a passive construction would be to, for, from).

Note: In grammar, a noun can only play one role at a time in a sentence, so if the noun brother is acting as the object of the preposition in the sentence, then it can't act as the subject of the sentence at the same time, even if it answers the question, "Who is performing the action?"

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