What Is an Active Sentence? (with Examples)

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Active Sentence

An active sentence is the opposite of a passive sentence. In an active sentence, the subject performs the action of the main verb. In a passive sentence, the action of the main verb is done to the subject.

active sentence example

Easy Examples of Active Sentences

In these examples of active sentences, note that the subjects (shaded text) are performing the actions of the verbs (bolded text).
  • The dog ate the biscuits.
  • (Here, the dog is the subject of the sentence. The dog is the subject of the verb ate. The dog is performing the action of the verb.)
  • Curiosity killed the cat.
  • (Curiosity (the subject) is performing the action of killed (the main verb).)
  • Hammerhead sharks will pester you as you approach the reef.
  • (Hammerhead sharks (the subject) is performing the action of will pester (the main verb).)
  • Some weasel removed the cork from my lunch. (Comedian WC Fields)
  • (Some weasel (the subject) is performing the action of removed (the main verb).)
In these passive versions of the same sentences, note that the subjects (shaded text) are not performing the actions of the verbs (bolded text). The actions are being done to the subjects.
  • The biscuits were eaten by the dog.
  • (Here, the biscuits is the subject of the sentence. The biscuits is the subject of the verb were eaten, but the biscuits is not performing the action of the verb. In fact, the action of the verb is being done to the biscuits. Therefore, this is a passive sentence not an active one.)
  • The cat was killed by curiosity.
  • (The action of was killed (the main verb) is being done to the cat (the subject).)
  • You will be pestered by hammerhead sharks as you approach the reef.
  • (The action of will be pestered (the main verb) is being done to you (the subject).)
  • The cork was removed from my lunch by some weasel.
  • (The action of was removed (the main verb) is being done to the cork (the subject).)

Some Interactive Examples

Here are some interactive examples:

  • Local yobs have defaced the wall already.
  • Alison broke the piano.
  • Jeremy released the article without permission.
  • Jeremy released the article without permission.
As you can see from the last two interactive examples above, passive sentences can be useful to avoid blame. There's more on this to come...

Real-Life Examples of Active Sentences

In the examples we have seen so far, the actions of the verbs (to eat, to kill, to pester, to remove) are easy to envisage. Remember though, the "actions" of verbs can be mental actions or more subtle actions:
  • In 1938, Time Magazine chose Adolf Hitler for man of the year.
  • (Time Magazine (the subject) is performing the verb chose.)
  • Human birth-control pills work on gorillas.
  • (Human birth-control pills (the subject) is performing the verb work.)
The "action" of the verb can be very subtle.
  • A wise man gets more use from his enemies than a fool from his friends. (Spanish philosopher Baltasar Gracián)
  • (A wise man (the subject) is performing the verb gets.)
Often, the "action" of the verb is just the act of being.
  • A paper cut is a tree's final moment of revenge.
  • (A paper cut (the subject) is performing the verb is.)
  • The best way to predict your future is to create it. (US President Abraham Lincoln)
  • (The best way to predict your future (the subject) is performing the verb is.)
When the subject is performing the action, the verb is said to be in the active voice. When the action of the verb is being done to the subject, the verb is said to be in the passive voice.
  • My house was clean yesterday.
  • (My house (the subject) is performing the verb was. Here, was is in the active voice.)
  • My house was cleaned yesterday.
  • (This time, my house (the subject) is having the action of the verb was cleaned done to it. Here, was cleaned is in the passive voice.)
Read more about grammatical voice.

Why Should I Care about Active Sentences?

There are benefits to using active sentences over passive sentences. Here are five good reasons to use active sentences:

(Reason 1) Active sentences are shorter.

  • He ate the pie.
  • (This active sentence has four words and 12 characters.)
  • The pie was eaten by him.
  • (This passive version has six words and 20 characters.)

(Reason 2) Active sentences are more direct.

An active sentence ensures the subject takes responsibility for the action.
  • I shot the sheriff.
  • (This active sentence makes it clear who shot the sheriff.)
  • The sheriff was shot.
  • (With this passive version, we don't know who shot the sheriff. Note that with a passive sentence, the performer of the action of verb (i.e., the agent) does not have to be named. This sentence could have ended by me, but it is grammatically sound without the agent being mentioned.)

(Reason 3) Active sentences are more informative (and therefore potentially less ambiguous).

In an active sentence, the agent of the action of the verb is clearly named. This is not always the case with a passive sentence, meaning the passive version could be less informative or, worse, ambiguous.
  • Jack adores Jill.
  • (This active-sentence version is clear and informative.)
  • Jill is adored.
  • (This passive-sentence version leaves us wondering who adores Jill. Maybe it just means she's popular.)

(Reason 4) Active sentences are generally more authoritative.

As active sentences make it clear who did what to whom and in a succinct manner, they tend to come across as more authoritative.
  • We passed the law to ensure patient safety.
  • (This active-sentence version sounds more authoritative than the passive version below.)
  • The law was passed to ensure patient safety.

(Reason 5) Active sentences are more engaging for the reader.

The natural way to make a point is "A affects B". When you write a sentence using this active-sentence structure, your readers will absorb the information more effortlessly than if you use a passive-sentence structure like "B was affected by A." The less effort your readers spend unravelling your meaning, the more they will spend absorbing your words, making your writing more engaging.
  • The Foreign Office advised me to apply for a work permit.
  • (With this active-sentence version, the information is absorbed as you encounter it.)
  • I was advised to apply for a work permit by the Foreign Office.
  • (This passive-sentence version is pretty clear, but it requires a few more calories to take it in. Therefore, to reduce your readers' brain-strain, you should adopt a bias for active sentences over passive ones.)
While these are decent benefits, there are also good reasons to use passive sentences.

(Reason 1) Passive sentences can be used to avoid blame.

  • The article was released without permission.
  • (This passive-sentence version avoids blame.)
  • Jeremy released the article without permission.
  • (With this active-sentence version, Jeremy is toast.)

(Reason 2) Passive sentences can show a neutral or objective tone.

  • It is anticipated that concessions will be offered by both parties.
  • (This passive sentence expresses a neutral tone.)

(Reason 3) Passive sentences are often appropriate when the agent is obvious, unimportant, or unknown.

  • The burglar was arrested as he left the cottage.
  • (The agent is obviously the police.)
  • The pigs were last seen on the outskirts of Malmesbury.
  • (It is not important who saw the pigs.)
  • The fire was started in the attic.
  • (The starter of the fire is unknown.)

(Reason 4) Passive sentences allow you to focus on what's important.

A passive sentence allows you to shift the focus from the doer of the action to the recipient of the action.
  • Nine people were killed by the fire.
  • (This passive-sentence version focuses on the victims.)
  • The fire killed 9 people.
  • (This active-sentence version focuses on the fire.)
  • In 1215, the Magna Carta was signed by King John.
  • (This passive-sentence version would likely be a better fit in an article about the Magna Carta than the active version below.)
  • King John signed the Magna Carta in 1215.
In general, active sentences are considered clear and authoritative while the passive sentences are considered indirect and even apologetic. As a result, lots of companies encourage their staff to avoid passive sentences. The practice of avoiding passive sentences is waning, but some grammar checkers will still treat your passive sentence as inferior or even as a mistake and suggest an active version. As we've covered though, there are advantages to passive sentences too. So, if your passive sentence works for you (e.g., gives you the emphasis you're looking for or masks the doer of the verb), then stick with it. Here's a great example of trying way too hard to use an active sentence:
  • An editor who had been trained to avoid passive sentences, changed the sentence "The unconscious patient must be placed in the coma position" to "The unconscious patient must adopt the coma position".
  • ("Better an active sentence than an appropriate one" is definitely not a rule!)
Here's the final advice: use both the active sentences and passive sentences in your writing to control the flow of text and to stress the most important parts of your sentences. Think about this though: If you're a native English speaker, you're probably great at choosing between active and passive sentences by instinct. So, if you've trained yourself to break what comes naturally and use lots of passive sentences because you think they sound more highbrow or corporate, then swing your needle back towards active sentences.
Interactive Exercise
Here are three randomly selected questions from a larger exercise, which can be edited, printed to create an exercise worksheet, or sent via email to friends or students.

See Also

What is active voice? What is passive voice? What is a passive sentence? What voice should I use? What are verbs? What is the subject of a sentence? Glossary of grammatical terms