What this resource is about  

This resource explains the active and passive sentence structures, also known as voices. You’ll learn how to identify them in your own writing in order to choose which voice to use.  

The Two Voices 

Active and passive voice describe two grammatically correct ways to construct a sentence. They both have their uses, and writers can choose when to use each voice. 

  • (active) The bobcat humiliated the grizzly.  
  • (passive) The grizzly was humiliated by the bobcat.  

In both sentences, the bobcat is the actor, the person or thing that causes the action. But the two sentences have different subjects. In the active sentence, the bobcat is the subject. In the passive version, the grizzly is the subject. But anyway you phrase it, the bobcat is doing the humiliating.  

The active voice matches the subject of the sentence with the actor: 

  • My brother subject & actor lostverb themoneyobject. 

The passive voice switches the subject and object so that the actor appears after the verb, as an object:  

  • The moneysubject was lostverb by himobject & actor. 

The passive voice can also exclude the actor entirely:  

  • The money was lost. 

How to identify the passive voice 

The passive voice changes the position of the actor by using the verb to be along with a past participle. Past participles are past tense verb forms that are used as adjectives. For regular verbs, the past participle is the same as the simple past tense, and usually end in –ed, like heated, rotted, or grabbed. English has a lot of irregular past participles, however. Check out this list of irregular past participles.

You can be sure a sentence is passive if it uses any form of the verb to be followed by a past participle.

Active Voice Passive Voice
I am cooking a meal. A meal is being cooked byme.
Someone will walk her dog. Her dog will be walked.
They wore a sweater. The sweater was worn by them.
John flew the kite. The kite was flown by John.

Writing Center tutors and digital tools like Grammarly are great for identifying passive voice. 

Any clause can be passive 

Until now, we’ve looked at voice in independent clauses. But dependent clauses can also be passive. In the examples below, the first clause is dependent, and the second clause is independent. We can make either clause active or passive. 

While Ed juiced the oranges, Kita sliced bread.
active, active
While the oranges were juiced by Ed, Kita sliced bread.
passive, active
While Ed juiced the oranges, bread was sliced by Kita.
active, passive
While the oranges were juiced by Ed, bread was sliced by Kita.
passive, passive

Why use the active voice? 

Active sentences are generally clearer and more concise than passive sentences. The active voice makes it clear who is doing the action, while the passive voice often obscures it. The active voice also complements the typical word order of English, in which the subject, which we usually expect to be the actor, appears first, the verb second, and the object last.   

  • (active) I bought bananas at the store today.  
  • (passive) Bananas were bought by me at the store today.  

In this example the passive voice is unnecessarily long and sounds awkward because it breaks from the usual word order of English. It sounds similar to “Bananas, I bought,” which only sounds natural if you're Yoda.  

  • (active) As curators grow a collection, they may choose to keep certain works. 
  • (passive) As curators grow a collection, certain works may be chosen to be kept. 

The active version is straightforward. The passive version is awkward because of the double passive construction of be chosen and be kept.  

  • (active)We believe this new method is safer. 
  • (passive) It is believed that this new method is safer.  

The passive version makes it unclear who believes the new method is safer. The subject of the passive sentence is it, which is vague and weak in this case. 

Why use the passive voice?  

The passive voice isn’t grammatically or morally wrong. Writers often use the passive voice to improve cohesion, to shift the focus of a sentence, or to prevent a subject and verb from being too separated in a sentence. The passive voice tends to sounds more natural if the actor of a sentence is unknown or less important than what’s acted upon. 

  • (active) Cooks can roast, grill, or even fry butternut squash, a favorite among gourd enthusiasts. Different cooking methods bring out different flavors.  
  • (passive) Butternut squash, a favorite among gourd enthusiasts, can be roasted, grilled, or even fried. Different cooking methods bring out different flavors.  

Because the second sentence is about the effect of different cooking methods, the passive voice makes the two sentences more cohesive. The sentences flow better because the topic of the second sentences matches the end of the first.  

  • (active) The X process, which uses plasma and radiation to fuse the spherical flask to the testing surface, helps the scientists.   
  • (passive) The scientists are helped by the X process, which uses plasma and radiation to fuse the spherical flask to the testing surface.  

The passive voice unites the subject (scientists) and verb (helped), and moves the long descriptive clause to the end. 

  • (active)   Eventually a construction crew destroyed the theater.  
  • (passive) Eventually the theater was destroyed.   

The passive voice is more concise than the active voice because the actor (the construction crew) isn’t important to the sentence. If you have to add unnecessary detail to make a sentence active, the passive version is probably better. 

What about writing in the sciences?  

It used to be a convention of formal science writing to remove the scientist from the writing by using the passive voice, which was thought to make the writing more objective. 

  • (active) We performed the experiment and recorded the results.  
  • (passive) The experiment was performed and the results were recorded. 

This convention is changing however, and now the active voice is commonly accepted in scientific journals. The scientist Joshua Schimel, in his book Writing Science, says, “Even in Materials and Methods sections it has become generally acceptable to use the first-person active voice, for example, ‘We collected samples.’”  

You should ask your instructor if they expect you to use passive voice in your science writing. You can also take a look at our copy of Writing Science, which is a great resource for science writing!  



Schimel, J. (2012). Writing Science: How to write papers that get cited and proposals that get funded. Oxford University Press.