Writing 101: Active and Passive Voices . . . and the Verb “To Be”

Writers are usually encouraged to use the active voice and to avoid the passive voice, so it is important to be able to know and recognize them . . . and to be able to change passive voice to active. And, despite the criticisms against the passive voice, there are times when it is the better choice. This post will help you to understand the difference and to employ the correct voice in your writing.

Active Voice

Here are a few examples of sentences in the active voice:

1. The dog bit the cat.

2. The author wrote the book.

3. I gave it to her.

The first two have a very simple structure: subject (the dog, the author), verb (bit, wrote), and direct object (the cat, the book). Example #3 is slightly more complicated because it also has an indirect object: subject (I), verb (gave), direct object (it), and indirect object (“to her”).

In each example, the subject of the sentence is performing the verb’s action: the dog is doing the biting, the author is doing the writing, and I am doing the giving. When the subject is doing the action, the sentence is in the active voice.

Passive Voice

Here are the same examples rewritten in the passive voice:

1. The cat was bitten by the dog.

2. The book was written by the author.

3. It was given to her by me.

Do you see the consistent change in structure? Here, the subject of the sentence is being acted upon by the verb: the cat was bitten (not doing the biting), the book was written (not doing the writing), and it was given (not doing the giving).

To change the active sentences to passive ones we:

  • Swapped the subject and direct object
  • Changed the verb to a form of “to be” plus the verb’s past participle (i.e. “was bitten,” “was written,” etc.)
  • Added the preposition “by” before the actor (which is now at the end of the sentence)

Here’s a more complex example:

Passive: During the storm, the fence was badly damaged but every effort has been made to fix it.

Active: The storm badly damaged the fence but we’ve made every effort to fix it.

Can you see the difference? Was the very first sentence of this blog post written in the active or passive voice?

More on the Verb “To Be”

The verb “to be” (in its various forms) is inherently passive because a state of being is not active. I am English. I’m not actively being English, even when I drink a cup of tea or sing “God Save the Queen.” My youngest son is twelve years old. He’s not actively being twelve, he just is twelve, even when doing something typical twelve-year-olds do.

For this reason, when I was at law school, my legal writing professor instructed all of her students to try to avoid using the verb “to be” if at all possible in all of our writing. Below you’ll find some exercises to practice avoiding it too. It’s not always easy.

When to Use the Passive Voice

As a general rule of thumb, use the active voice for tight, engaging writing. But there are several occasions when the passive voice is the voice of choice. Here are some examples:

The Subject is Unknown or Unnecessary

The beginning of the first sentence of this post is an example (“Writers are usually encouraged to use the active voice and to avoid the passive voice.”) Here, we don’t know who is doing the encouraging and it’s irrelevant anyway, so the passive voice makes sense. If we had a better idea of who’s doing the encouraging, it could be rewritten, “Writing coaches encourage writers to use the active voice …” (for example).

To Emphasize the Action Rather Than the Actor

When the action is more important than the doer of the action, use the passive voice:

“The result of the election was finally announced late last night” rather than “the election officer finally announced the results of the election late last night.”

Here, the passive voice example emphasizes the fact the results were announced whereas the active voice emphasizes the election officer doing the announcing.

To Be Tactful and Avoid Placing Blame

When your husband (or wife) burnt the dinner but you don’t want him (her) to feel bad, use “the dinner was burnt” rather than “my husband (wife) burnt the dinner.” This makes the doer of the action ambiguous and allows you to avoid stating it.

To Keep a Consistent Focus on the Same Subject

Example: “The high school football coach recently proposed a new coaching method to improve results. After a heated meeting with parents, the new method was abandoned.”

Here, the new coaching method is the heart of the passage and it doesn’t matter who abandoned it, just that it was abandoned.

To De-emphasize a Contrary Argument

This is particularly applicable in persuasive writing. As part of my legal writing course, I had to write a full-length legal brief and was instructed to avoid the active voice at all costs, except in this instance.

When your writing is attempting to persuade the reader to your point of view but you have to give both the pros and cons to your argument (which is exactly what a legal brief is attempting and required to do), you can minimize the points that go against your argument by expressing them all in the passive voice.

When You Have a Particular Creative/Artistic Reason to Write “Weakly”

If you want to create a particularly weak view of a character in your writing, for example, you may choose to describe his actions using the passive voice. You may also write an entire passage (or even chapter) in the passive voice to emphasize the passages or chapters preceding and following, or simply to give a sense of disengagement from the actions being described. This is one of those occasions when a skilled writer can choose to “break the rule” for a deliberate, creative reason and needs to be used carefully and with caution.

Practice Exercises

Rewrite the following sentences completely in the active voice:

  1. The high school football coach recently proposed a new coaching method to improve results. After a heated meeting with parents, the new method was abandoned.
  2. The chocolate cake was made by my daughter.
  3. The cliff was eroded by wave action.

Rewrite these sentences in the passive voice:

  1. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
  2. God created mankind in His own image.
  3. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”

Do your best to rewrite these sentences avoiding all parts of the verb “to be” (i.e. avoid using: am, are, is, were, was, be):

  1. To be or not to be, that is the question.
  2. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
  3. I think therefore I am.
  4. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit.
  5. For though they may be parted, there is still a chance that they will see; there will be an answer, let it be.
  6. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”
  7. And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place.

If you are a member of Inspire Christian Writers and would like to upload your exercises, or discuss the topics covered in this post, you can join our Writing 101 group and reply to this post with your thoughts and exercise work: https://www.inspirewriters.com/groups/writing-101/forum/topic/active-voice-and-passive-voice/ (you will need to be logged in to access the group/forum).

About Ian Feavearyear 17 Articles
Ian was born and bred in the rural county of Suffolk, England but feels very much at home in northern Oregon. He is married to the Inspire Board President, Robynne, and is currently working on his first non-fiction book. Ian is Inspire's Blog and Membership Director, webmaster, and general tech go-to person. Ian is a law school valedictorian with a Juris Doctor from Concord Law School and a paralegal certificate from Humboldt State University.