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Active vs. Passive Voice in Writing: Which to Use?

Bijgewerkt op: 17 mei

When you're a writer, you've undoubtedly heard the advice: never use passive voice, always change it to active voice. But does this always hold up? What's actually the difference?

So, before you go through your manuscript and edit all your sentences to active ones, let's dive into the issue a little deeper.

active vs passive voice in writing: which to use

How do you know if it's passive or active voice?

An active sentence focuses, as the name says, on the action (and the subject).

It has the form: subject + verb + object

So: Suzy threw the ball.

Active sentences add activity and movement to your sentences, which makes them easy to read.

On the other hand, passive sentences focus on the object of the sentence, so the person or thing that's undergoing the action.

It has the form: object + form of to be + verb + subject

So: The ball was thrown by Suzy.

And often the subject is omitted completely: The ball was thrown.

As you can see, this changes the way you read the sentence because it shifts your focus. Generally, we want to focus to be on the action and who performs the action. As we said, this adds movement to your writing, whereas passive sentences feel more, well, passive.


So, to know whether a sentence in your manuscript is active or passive, look for a form of “to be” in the sentence. Note that this doesn't always mean the sentence is passive. For instance, if Suzy is in the midst of throwing the ball, we'd write: Suzy was throwing the ball.

This is still an active sentence, only a different tense is used.

So, once you've identified a form of “to be,” check whether the verb follows the subject (is it the person doing the action) or an object (is it the person undergoing the action).

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Is it OK to use passive voice in writing?

Long story short: yes. It's definitely OK. You just have to check that you're using it for the right reasons.

This also depends on whether you're writing fiction, nonfiction, or academic nonfiction. Generally, you want to keep most of your sentences active, even in academic writing. At least in the APA style guide, it's now recommended that you write in active voice (check your journal's guidelines to check whether they have different recommendations).

What does that mean?

No: It was shown that this target group had significantly more improvement than the control group.

Rather: The results of this study showed that this target group improved significantly more than the control group.

So, in what instances do you use passive voice?

As I said before, the difference between passive and active voice is the emphasis they place. The emphasis is either on the action and the one performing it, or it's on the one undergoing the action.

Whenever you come across a passive sentence in your manuscript, just ask yourself: does it have the right emphasis?

For instance:

The kidnapper gagged and bound the girl.

The girl was gagged and bound.

It might make sense to go for the passive option if you want the emphasis to be on the girl undergoing the gagging and binding, especially if you're writing the scene from her perspective.


The takeaways

You can use both active and passive voice in your writing, although the majority will be active, simply because you want to have that movement within your story.

When you're on the hunt for passive sentences, don't just change them to active. Look and consider whether it's the right form in this instance.

Would you like more tips & tricks for editing your manuscript? Sign up for my free self-editing class.


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