Active vs. Passive Voice: The Complete Guide

By Strategically AI. Reviewed by Rebecca Hey.
Updated March 9, 2024
8 minute read
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Have you ever wondered, "What is passive voice?" If you're a writer, student, or someone who's just interested in the English language, you've likely come across this term. 

It's a concept that can be a bit tricky to grasp, but once you do, it can significantly improve your writing. 

This blog post will delve into the world of passive voice, providing a comprehensive guide to help you understand and use it effectively. 

As a professional content writing agency, we’ve written articles on everything from yoga to AI, in every tone imaginable. Let us guide you through the nuance of the passive voice and how to master it in your content.

Ready? Let’s go.

Understanding the Basics of Passive Voice

In English writing, various structures give sentences different shades of meaning. One such structure is the passive voice. Unlike the standard English sentence structure, known as the active voice, the passive voice flips the actor and receiver roles in a sentence. 

Defining the Passive Voice

In its simplest form, the passive voice is a grammatical construction where the subject and the object of a sentence swap roles. In a passive sentence, the focus is on the action receiver rather than the doer. This starkly contrasts the active voice, where the subject, or the actor, is the main focus.

  • Consider the sentence, 'The cat chased the mouse.' This is an active sentence where 'the cat' is the actor and 'the mouse' is the receiver. 
  • If we were to convert this into a passive voice, it would read, 'The mouse was chased by the cat.' Here, the mouse, the action's receiver, becomes the sentence's subject.

The key to identifying a passive voice is to look for a sentence where the action's receiver is the subject. This unique feature of the passive voice allows us to focus on the most important element in a sentence, whether it's a person, an object, or an event.

Forming the Passive Voice

Forming the passive voice isn't as complex as it may seem. It's all about switching the actor and receiver in a sentence. The receiver, or the object of the action, becomes the grammatical subject. This switch can sometimes lead to the actor being omitted from the sentence entirely. 

For example: 

  • 'The cake was eaten' is a passive sentence, but we don't know who ate the cake.
  • ‘The letter was written by Jane' is a passive sentence, with 'was' being the form of 'to be' and 'written' being the past participle.

Remember, not every sentence containing a form of 'have' or 'be' is passive. These words can serve different functions in English. For instance, in the sentence:

  • 'John has to study all afternoon', 'has' is not part of a past-tense verb. It's a modal, showing necessity or obligation. 

So, while forming the passive voice involves some specific grammatical constructions, it's not as daunting as it might initially appear.

Passive Voice vs Active Voice

The passive voice and active voice are two different ways of expressing the same idea. In the active voice, the subject of the sentence performs the action, while in the passive voice, the subject is acted upon. 

  • Active: Consider the sentence, "The cat chased the mouse." This is an active sentence because the subject, the cat, is doing the action of chasing. 
  • Passive: If we were to rewrite this in the passive voice, it would be "The mouse was chased by the cat." Here, the mouse, which is now the subject, is being acted upon.

The choice between using the active or passive voice can depend on what you want to emphasize. If you want to focus on the cat, you might use the active voice. But if you want to highlight the mouse, you might choose the passive voice. 

It's important to note that the active voice is generally clearer and more direct. In an active sentence, it's often easier for readers to understand who is doing what to whom.

That said, the passive voice isn't always a bad choice. There are times when it can be useful, such as when the actor is unknown or unimportant, or when you want to emphasize the action rather than the actor.

In a sentence like "Mistakes were made," the focus is on the fact that mistakes occurred, not on who made them. In these cases, the passive voice can be a powerful tool. But like any tool, it's most effective when used judiciously.

The Impact of Passive Voice on SEO

The passive voice plays a significant role in SEO. But why? 

Active sentences are generally more straightforward and clearer than their passive counterparts. Therefore, maintaining a balance is crucial for SEO.

However, it's a common misconception that it should be avoided at all costs. It's not about completely eliminating it but rather controlling its usage. 

Our passive voice checker is a handy tool for monitoring and managing the use of passive voice in your content, helping you to maintain the balance. It is designed to ensure that your content remains engaging and easy to understand. 

It assesses your content and provides feedback based on the percentage of passive sentences used. If the passive voice usage exceeds the recommended limit, it's time to revise and make your content more active.

Myths and Misconceptions about Passive Voice

Passive voice is often misunderstood, leading to a myriad of misconceptions that can cloud our understanding of its true nature and usage. Here are a few of the more common myths and misconceptions:

  • Grammatical error: The use of the passive voice constitutes a grammatical error. This is far from the truth. The passive voice isn’t a grammar error; it's a stylistic choice that can be used effectively in certain contexts.
  • To be or not to be: Any use of 'To Be' (in any form) constitutes the passive voice. This is a gross oversimplification. The passive voice entails more than just the use of 'To Be'; it involves a specific sentence structure where the subject is acted upon by the verb.
  • First person: It’s a myth that the passive voice always avoids the first person. This is not always the case. The passive voice can be used with any grammatical person, including the first person. It's all about the structure of the sentence, not the person being referred to. 

By debunking these myths, we can better understand the passive voice and how to use it effectively in our writing.

When is it OK to Use the Passive Voice?

The passive voice, often criticized for its potential to obscure clarity, can sometimes be the most effective tool in your writing arsenal. There are instances where the passive voice is not only acceptable but also preferable. 

  • When you want to emphasize an object or de-emphasize an unknown actor, the passive voice can be your best bet. It's also useful when the actor's identity is irrelevant to your readers.
  • In scientific writing, the passive voice often focuses on the experiment rather than the experimenter, making the findings seem more objective. 
  • Similarly, the passive voice can help maintain a sense of detachment and neutrality when summarising historical events or literary plots.

However, it's crucial to remember that the passive voice should not be overused. It's a tool to be used judiciously, not a crutch to lean on. When used appropriately, it can add depth and nuance to your writing. But when overused, it can make your writing seem vague and convoluted.

Strategies for Avoiding Passive Voice

By mastering these techniques, you'll be able to create more engaging, direct, and powerful prose. Remember, the goal is not to eliminate passive voice entirely but to use it judiciously and with purpose.

  1. Our passive voice checker can be a handy tool for identifying sentences written in the passive voice and allowing you to rewrite them in an active voice.
  2. Focus on the actor. Remember, in an active sentence, the actor performs the action. So, try to start your sentences with the actor. This not only makes your writing clearer but also more engaging.
  3. Don't be too rigid about avoiding passive voice. As mentioned earlier, there are instances where using passive voice makes more sense. The key is to strike a balance. A good rule of thumb is to keep your passive voice usage below 10%.
  4. Practice makes perfect. The more you write and revise, the better you'll get at using less passive voice in your copy. So, keep writing, keep revising, and keep improving your SEO.

The Role of Passive Voice in Effective Writing

While passive voice has its place in writing, using it sparingly and appropriately is important. Understanding what passive voice is and how to identify and avoid it can make your writing clearer, more direct, and more engaging for your readers.

We hope this article will help you with your writing and give you the confidence to create powerful active and passive sentences. If you get stuck, our content writing tool is here to help you create SEO-optimized content, quickly and easily!

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Rebecca Hey
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