Mastering Active Vs. Passive Language in Your Writing

Writing English can be a little different from speaking English, although learning to do both is crucial for becoming fluent. As you learn English writing skills, remember these tips for using active versus passive language.

Active Vs. Passive: An Overview

A person writing in a notebook
In English, active and passive voices are used to differentiate whether the subject of the sentence performs the action or receives the action. When using the active voice, the subject is performing the action. Consider this sentence: “The girl drives the car.” The subject (the girl) is performing the action (driving), so this sentence uses active voice. When using the passive voice, the subject receives the action. Consider this sentence: “The car was driven by the girl.” In this sentence, the subject (the car) is not performing any action; the girl is the one performing the action (driving). This is a passive sentence.

Using Active Voice in Writing

There are exceptions, but your writing will be stronger when you use active voice as much as possible. Passive voice makes it feel like there’s very little action going on, which can make your sentences weaker. It’s also less engaging to the reader when there’s no action happening. Passive sentences tend to be unnecessarily long and complicated, while active sentences are shorter and tighter.

When to Use Passive Voice

Passive voice should not be avoided entirely. In fact, passive voice can enhance a sentence when used in certain situations, such as to emphasize the action itself, instead of who did it, as in the sentence, “New laws were passed by Congress.” You’ll see this type of sentence a lot in the news.

Passive voice can also be used when it’s unclear or unimportant who performed the action, as in the sentence, “The bank was robbed.”

It can be used to convey authority, as in the sentence, “Children are not allowed.” There is no mention of who is performing the action—as in, who is not allowing children—but the point gets across that they are not allowed.

As you’ll learn in your courses, there are many other times where passive voice can be used in writing, but active voice is a great choice when you’re not sure. If you want to learn English, register for classes or call ALCC American Language at (212) 736-2373 today!

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