What Is the Active Voice and Why Is It Important?

by Glen Hoffmann

Published at 2024-02-13

You’ve likely heard it’s best to write in the active voice whenever possible. This is good advice. In this week’s blog, I’ll explain why by answering some key questions. First, what is the active voice and how is it different from the passive voice? Second, what makes active sentences so effective? And, finally, in which situations, if any, can we use the passive voice?

To give you a general sense of the issue, since this is my first TEC post, I might say, “This is the first blog I’m writing for TEC.” Or, in the passive voice, I might say, “This blog was written by me for TEC.” See how the passive sentence saps the energy of the active one? 


The Active Voice

Let’s start at the beginning: What is the active voice and how does it work? The active voice, in a word, is a simplifier—it makes things clear and lucid. How does it do this? Well, since in active sentences, the subject acts as the verb, it becomes obvious to the reader who the subject is and what action they perform.

Consider “The dog chases the ball.” In this active sentence, it’s as plain as pie that the subject is the dog. It’s also clear what action the dog performs: it chases the ball. The sentence is neither vague nor ambiguous and your reader will appreciate it.

What’s more, we can say the same thing about any active sentence. For instance, in “Mimi walked to the beach” and “Xavier wrote the paper,” it’s a piece of cake to identify who the subject is (“Mimi” and “Xavier”) and what action they performed (“walked to the beach” and “wrote the paper”).

By using the active voice, you make things easier for your audience. You enable them to quickly and efficiently grasp what you’re saying. By writing “actively” you also convey your meaning more forcefully. “Writers write articles,” for instance, is far more direct and powerful than “Articles are written by writers.” When you write in an active voice, you’re far more likely to capture your reader’s attention, engage them, and convince them to read on. 


The Passive Voice

The passive voice, meanwhile, lacks this directness. Passive sentences put the direct object before the verb and the subject after the verb. When you write “passively,” you focus on the results (or the recipient) of an action rather than the subject who acted. 

Passive sentences, for this very reason, are often vague, indirect, and impersonal. Consider “The ball is being chased.” In this sentence, it’s impossible to identify who’s chasing the ball. 

Or, to give another example, in “The car engine was fixed,” there’s no way to determine who fixed the car (or who owns the car, for that matter).

Passive sentences can be head-scratchers. They put the reader in a precarious position since they make it impossible to know who performed what action. This not only makes your writing harder to grasp but also less engrossing. You need to convey your point clearly and directly to avoid losing your reader, and passive sentences often fail to do this.

So, should you always avoid the passive voice? No. Sometimes it’s okay and in fact, a good idea to use it. For instance, consider these four situations in which it’s often best to use passive sentences:

1.   When the agent performing the action is obvious.

If you point to your brother and say to your mom, “The last cookie was already eaten,” you don’t need to supply the subject since it’s obvious who ate the cookie (your brother).

2.   When the agent performing the action is unimportant.

In “There has been lots of littering in this park,” if it’s not important who the litterers are, you don’t need to identify them.

3.   When the agent performing the action is unknown.

If you don’t know who stole your car, the sentence “My car was stolen yesterday” aptly conveys that your car was stolen and that you have no idea who stole it. 

4.   When you wish to avoid or postpone mentioning the agent. 

“Mistakes were made” works well if you don’t want to single out anyone as culprits, and, perhaps, if you don’t want to reveal what the mistakes were.


The Takeaway

There’s no denying that the active voice is a vital part of your writing toolbox. Using lots of active sentences makes your writing clearer, more focused, and more captivating. It “activates” your writing in a way that passive sentences don’t.

Passive sentences, meanwhile, should be used in moderation. While it’s sometimes okay to use them, avoid them whenever possible. They can make your writing vague, impersonal, and more difficult to understand. Only use the passive voice when appropriate, since writing “passively” makes it more likely you’ll lose your reader.



Glen Hoffmann is an editor and writer at Our Kids Media, a freelance non-fiction editor and writer, and holds a PhD in philosophy. He can be reached at


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