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What Is Active Voice? (with Examples)

Active voice is the term for a verb whose subject performs the action of the verb. For example:
  • John painted the fence.
  • (In this example, "painted" is in the active voice because the subject of "painted" ("John") is performing the action, i.e., did the painting. So, this is an example of an active sentence with a verb in the active voice.)
Now, look at this example:
  • The fence was painted by John.
  • (In this example, "was painted" is not in the active voice because the subject of "was painted" ("The fence") did not perform the action, i.e., did not do the painting. So, this is an example of a passive sentence with a verb in the passive voice.)
Here is another example of a verb in the active voice:

active voice example

Remember that the active voice is the opposite of the passive voice. When the action of the verb is done to the subject, the verb is said to be in the passive voice.
Formal Definitions

Active voice is a quality of a verb that describes when its subject is acting out the verb. When the opposite is true (i.e., the subject of the sentence is being acted upon by the verb), it is said to be in passive voice.

Look at this example of the passive voice:

passive voice example

Some Interactive Examples

Here are some interactive examples showing the difference between active and passive voice. In these examples, the subjects are highlighted and the verbs are bold:
  • The girls painted the fence.
  • Dawn played the piano.
  • Simon saw the fox.
  • Alan will read the poem.

Examples of Verbs in the Active Voice

Remember that if a verb is in the active voice, its subject performs the action of the verb. Let's go through this step by step. In these examples, the active verbs are shaded.
  • Janet posted a letter.
  • Step 1: Find the subject. ("Janet")
    Step 2: Find the verb. ("to post")
    Step 3: Ask "Did 'Janet' perform the verb?" (Yes! Therefore, "posted" is a verb in the active voice.)
  • Curiosity killed the cat.
  • Step 1: Find the subject. ("curiosity")
    Step 2: Find the verb. ("to kill")
    Step 3: Ask "Did 'curiosity' perform the verb?" (Yes! Therefore, "killed" is a verb in the active voice.)
  • All power corrupts.
  • Step 1: Find the subject. ("all power")
    Step 2: Find the verb. ("to corrupt")
    Step 3: Ask "Did 'all power' perform the verb?" (Yes! Therefore, "corrupts" is a verb in the active voice.)
  • Some weasel removed the cork from my lunch. (W. C. Fields, 1880-1946)
  • Step 1: Find the subject. ("some weasel")
    Step 2: Find the verb. ("to remove")
    Step 3: Ask "Did 'some weasel' perform the verb?" (Yes! Therefore, "removed" is a verb in the active voice.)
Sometimes, it's a little trickier to spot whether the subject carried out the action of the verb. Look at the two examples below. They tell similar stories, but the first one features a verb in the active voice, while the second features a verb in the passive voice.
  • The boy tripped while running.
  • Step 1: Find the subject. ("the boy")
    Step 2: Find the verb. ("to trip")
    Step 3: Ask "Did 'the boy' perform the verb?" (Yes! Therefore, "tripped" is a verb in the active voice.)
  • The boy was seen tripping while he ran.
  • Step 1: Find the subject. ("the boy")
    Step 2: Find the verb. ("to see")
    Step 3: Ask "Did 'the boy' perform the verb?" (No! Therefore, "was seen" is a verb in the passive voice.)
So, in the second example, the boy is not performing the action of the verb. Some unknown person is performing the action by seeing the boy trip. This is an example of the passive voice because the subject is not acting out the verb.

More Examples of the Active Voice

  • Suzy chased the butterfly with a net.
  • The kite soared high in the air.
  • The children shielded their eyes from the bright sun.
  • A squirrel bounced across the lawn.
  • The soldier ants invaded the picnic with military precision.
In the examples so far, the verbs have been ones with obvious actions. Remember that not all verb have such physical actions. Look at these example of verbs in the active voice.
  • Paul imagined what the weather was like above those dark clouds.
  • He is happy.
  • (The action here is simply the act of being. The verb "to be" is our most common verb.)
  • They are late.
  • They were late.
  • They will be late.
  • (The three examples above all feature the verb "to be" in the active voice.)

A Tricky Example

Let's make things really difficult now.
  • Paul was slaughtered.
  • (If "slaughtered" is an adjective meaning drunk, then "was" is in the active voice.)
  • Paul was slaughtered.
  • (If "slaughtered" is a verb meaning beaten easily, then "was slaughtered" is in the passive voice.)
Get it?

A Video Summary

Here is a video on active and passive sentences.

Why Should I Care about the Active Voice?

Sentences with verbs in the active voice are often more direct than those with passive-voice verbs. They are certainly shorter. As a result, many businesses encourage their staff to write using active sentences (i.e., ones with verbs in the active voice) rather than passive sentences.

The guidance to opt for active sentences over passive ones is so strong that many spell checkers (humans and applications) highlight a passive sentence as poor writing. However, both the active voice and passive voice have their benefits.

Here are four good reasons to use active sentences and four good reasons to use passive sentences.

(Reason 1) Active sentences are shorter.

Active sentences are always shorter than their passive alternatives.
  • He saw the dog.
  • (This active sentence has four words and 11 characters.)
  • The dog was seen by him.
  • (This passive version has six words and 18 characters.)

(Reason 2) Active sentences are more direct.

With an active sentence, the subject takes responsibility for the action.
  • John made the decision to publish the article.
  • (This active sentence makes it clear that John was responsible.)
  • The decision was made to publish the article.
  • (With this passive sentence, we don't know who took the decision.)
    (NB: With a passive sentence, the doer of the action (called "the agent") does not have to be named.)

(Reason 3) Active sentences are more authoritative.

Active sentences are considered more authoritative because they make it clear who did what to whom and in a succinct manner.
  • I passed the law to protect the public.
  • (Here, the author is taking responsibility, and credit, for passing the law. It is more authoritative than the passive version below.)
  • The law was passed to protect the public.
  • (With this version, the author is not taking responsibility, or blame, for the law. It comes across as less authoritative.)

(Reason 4) Active sentences are more engaging for the reader.

Using active sentences tends to make your writing more engaging because the facts are absorbed as they are encountered. In other words, the sentences are ordered naturally (e.g., in the format "A did something to B").
  • My mother advised me to avoid the lake.
  • (With this active sentence, the information is absorbed as you encounter it.)
  • I was advised by my mother that the lake is to be avoided.
  • (This passive sentence requires the reader to momentarily hold information in "brain storage" before that information's relevance is known. In other words, the information is not fully absorbed as it is encountered.)
While these are worthwhile benefits, there are also good reasons to use passive sentences.

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

  • The article was published without permission.
  • (This passive sentence avoids blame.)
  • Simon published the article without permission.
  • (With this active sentence, Simon takes the blame.)

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

  • Assurances have been given that substantial concessions will be presented by both sides.
  • (This passive sentence expresses a neutral tone.)

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

  • The shoplifter was arrested before he left the store.
  • (The agent is obviously the police.)
  • The meteor was seen passing over northern Siberia.
  • (It is not important who saw the meteor.)
  • The painting was stolen during the guard's lunch break.
  • (The perpetrator is unknown.)

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

A passive sentence allows you to move the focus to the recipient of the action as opposed to the doer.
  • Forty-two zebras were rescued by the rangers.
  • (This passive sentence focuses on the zebras.)
  • The rangers rescued 42 zebras.
  • (This active sentence focuses on the rangers.)
Read more about using active sentences.
Read more about using passive sentences.
Read more about voice in grammar.
Ready for the Test?
Here is a confirmatory test for this lesson.

This test can also be:
  • Edited (i.e., you can delete questions and play with the order of the questions).
  • Printed to create a handout.
  • Sent electronically to friends or students.

See Also

What are verbs? What is the subject of a sentence? What is the object of a sentence? What is passive voice? What is an active sentence? What is a passive sentence? What voice should I use?