Where the Action Is

With all their variety, English sentences tend to follow a fairly strict pattern—especially in writing. “The woman shot the burglar” is a more satisfying sentence than “the burglar was shot by the woman.” Both versions mean the same thing—but the English-language tradition demands that we express most of our thoughts in the active voice instead of the passive. We want to know who or what performed the action right away, rather than having to wait for that important information to come at the end of the sentence. 

The Active Voice and its Virtues

When we use the term “voice” to denote active versus passive in a sentence, we’re referring to the voice of the verb. In an active sentence, the subject carries out the action of the verb. The reverse is true in a passive sentence: The subject is acted upon by someone or something that comes later, with the verb as the monkey in the middle! That’s a game in which two teams of players throw a ball back and forth, but one extra player (the “monkey”) is left standing in the middle. It’s hard for the monkey to catch the ball, because the players try to prevent that from happening.

The verb in a passive sentence feels weak, like the monkey standing alone while the other players toss the ball back and forth over its head.

Active Voice

- The monkey is eating the banana.
- We urgently needed the report.
- She cooked a delicious meal.

Passive Voice

- The banana is being eaten by the monkey.
- The report was urgently needed.
- A delicious meal was cooked by her.

By now, you’ve probably noticed that the real subject of a passive sentence is often hidden in the phrase that starts with the word “by.” In the active sentence, it's clear that the monkey is doing the eating, while in the passive sentence, the banana is sitting there being eaten. It seems almost incidental that it's being eaten by the monkey.

Normally, when you write in English, use the active voice to keep things moving along nicely. The English language, and the culture it reflects, is dynamic and action-oriented. I advise all my students to stay away from the passive voice—most of the time.


But—there’s always a “but”! There are times when it’s appropriate and even desirable to use the passive voice. Use it freely…

- when the subject is truly passive, as in “I was born.” This example also reminds us that the hidden subject of the sentence, “my mother,” is so obvious and so universal that we don’t need to mention it. No one would ever say: “My mother bore me.” 

- when the identity of the subject is unknown, as in “Her wallet was stolen on the bus.” 

- when hiding from responsibility, as in “According to the Pentagon, mistakes were made.”

The ultimate beneficiary of the active voice is the reader. The person tasked with reading your report, article, or training module will be more likely to stick with it when your sentences move in the same direction as the reader’s eyes.

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