Skip to main content

Active and passive sentences

In academic and professional writing it is important to understand active and passive sentences because it is important to understand the advantages of each and to use them to best effect.

Sentences may be either actively or passively constructed (they are said to be in the active or passive ‘voice’).

An active sentence is one in which the subject is also the agent (or doer) of the action.

i07-bill-joe-1

The sentence ‘Bill hit Joe.’ is an active construction, because the subject (‘Bill’) is also the agent of the action (‘hit’).

A passive sentence, by contrast, is one in which the subject is being acted upon.

i07-bill-joe-2

The sentence ‘Joe was hit by Bill’ is a passive sentence, because the subject is the receiver, not the agent, of the action (‘Bill’ is the agent).

Identical information is being described in the two sentences, but where the active sentence focuses on Bill, the passive sentence focuses on Joe. This difference in focus influences the way in which the reader interprets the information in the sentence. If you wanted to draw the reader’s attention to Joe as a victim of violence, rather than to Bill’s act of violence, you would use the passive voice. And, vise versa, if you wanted to draw the reader’s attention to Bill’s act of violence, rather than Joe as a victim of violence, you would use the active voice.

When to use the passive voice

Generally speaking, the active voice is preferable to the passive, because it is more direct and uses fewer words. However, there are some occasions when the passive voice must be used. Three occasions are:

 

Previous Page Next Page