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Active vs Passive Voice | Grammar Differences

16 August 2011
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Can you identify the difference between these two sentences?

“The Queen welcomed the ambassador at Buckingham Palace.”

“The ambassador was welcomed by the Queen at Buckingham Palace.”

Is the same idea being expressed? It can be tricky to understand exactly what has changed, but read carefully. The answer is that the focus, or the subject, of the sentence has shifted.

In the first version, the author used the ACTIVE voice to draw attention to the Queen as the subject. In the second sentence, the PASSIVE voice is used to focus on the ambassador, who becomes the center of attention in the sentence.


What’s the difference?

In the active voice, the subject is doing the action. Sentence one focuses on the Queen, who welcomed the ambassador. The ambassador is the object of the verb, or the person the action is being done to. In passive voice, the target of the action is the most important. The focus in the second sentence is the ambassador. He becomes the subject. In this sentence, the queen is less important, even though she is still performing the action.



You can use the passive voice in almost all verb tenses. Read these examples:

  • Active: I cooked the rice. Passive: The rice is cooked.
  • A: I am cooking the rice. P: The rice is being cooked.
  • A: I have cooked the rice. P: The rice has been cooked.
  • A: I cooked the rice. P: The rice was cooked.
  • A: I was cooking the rice. P: The rice was being cooked.
  • A: I will cook the rice. P: The rice will be cooked.


Which voice should you use?

You should use the active voice when writing, unless you have a specific reason to write in passive voice. The passive voice can make sentences complicated without reason. Especially in Business or Academic English, it is a good idea to avoid the passive voice.

Read the following example: “Author Naomi Klein proved that the main cause of the economic crisis was the imperfections of the free market economy.” The information is presented in a clear and simple way. We see the main purpose of the sentence is more quickly with the use of the active voice.

The next example shows how the sentence reads in the passive voice: “It was proven that the main cause of the economic crisis was because of the imperfections of the free market economy.” Immediately the reader has questions: Who proved this? How? Is it possible to prove this at all? This is a much more confusing sentence construction. However, there are good times to use the passive voice.


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When to use the Passive Voice

Even though the active voice is easier to understand, this does not mean you should never use the passive voice. It can add suspense in a detective story. If you don’t want to reveal the criminal, you would write “The victim was murdered in cold blood.” The passive voice is also useful when you don’t know who performed the action. A newspaper article might say “The store was robbed” because you do not know who robbed the store. Even author George Orwell uses the passive voice in the very first sentence of his essay “Politics and the English Language”, despite his advice to “Never use the passive where you can use the active.”


To conclude

It is up to you, the writer, which voice to use. The most important thing is to write clearly and use correct grammar structures. Have you ever experienced difficulties with understanding or making the choice between Active vs Passive Voice?


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