Defining the active voice

You might have heard it’s a good idea to favour the active voice in your writing – it’s generally tighter and more dynamic than using the passive voice.

But what exactly do we mean by ‘active’ and ‘passive’ anyway?

The active voice puts the ‘doer’ of the action described (in grammar terms, the agent) first. This tends to sound natural and clear, and it leaves no information hidden. For example:

The cat had stolen the dog’s dinner.

Here the ‘doer’ (‘the cat’) is stated before the action (‘had stolen’). Now look at this sentence:

The dog’s dinner had been stolen by the cat.

This is the passive voice: the action comes before the ‘doer’. In fact, the sentence would still make sense if you removed ‘by the cat’, which would leave everyone wondering who had stolen the poor dog’s food.

The passive voice can be used cynically to disguise who performed an action, which can produce a somewhat opaque and suspect piece of writing. And be careful not to use it habitually – doing so weighs down writing and makes it sound a bit bureaucratic and dull.

Want to see the active voice in action? Check out this short video of Emphasis founder Rob Ashton demonstrating how to power up a sentence by switching needless passives to the active voice.

The definitive guide to transforming the writing of individuals and teams