Active Voice in Grammar

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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In traditional grammar, the term active voice refers to a type of sentence or clause in which the subject performs or causes the action expressed by the verb. Contrast with passive voice.

Though style guides often encourage use of the active voice, the passive construction can also be quite useful, especially when the performer of an action is unknown or unimportant.

Examples and Observations

  • "We play catch or sail a dinghy or holler."
    (Annie Dillard, "Mirages," 1982)
  • "Seven days a week, Paul Schimmel ventures into the subway with his clarinet. In the IND station at Sixth Avenue and Forty-second Street one recent afternoon, he paid his fare with a free pass."
    (Mark Singer, "Mr. Personality," 1987)
  • "I lifted my rod, preparing to do battle, but I felt no resistance. Soon enough, I reeled in a fat sucker; it flopped onto the shore like a sack of mush."
    (Bill Barich, "Steelhead on the Russian," 1981)
  • "The water had broken the plate-glass windows of most of the stores along the street and had ruined their stocks."
    (John Hersey, "Over the Mad River," 1955)
  • "Some customers prefer mulled ale. They keep their mugs on the hob until the ale gets as hot as coffee. A sluggish cat named Minnie sleeps in a scuttle beside the stove."
    (Joseph Mitchell, "The Old House at Home," 1940)
  • "Chloë glanced up and saw me standing there and frowned."
    (Julie Myerson, "A Sad-Grand Moment That Never Came," 2008)
  • "Skiing combines outdoor fun with knocking down trees with your face."
    (Dave Barry)
  • "Finally, Hillary swept in and moved down a line of huggers toward a raised platform centered in the room.
    "Her positioning meant that she had to keep turning in order to hug back. Around and around and around she turned, 360 degrees, over and over, her arms outstretched in perpetual greeting, like a jewel-box ballerina whose battery has run low."
    (Kathleen Parker, "Hillary's Once in a Lifetime." Oakland Tribune, Feb. 21, 2007)
  • "You know, at one time, I used to break into pet shops to liberate the canaries. But I decided that was an idea way before its time. Zoos are full, prisons are overflowing. Oh my, how the world still dearly loves a cage."
    (Ruth Gordon as Maude in Harold and Maude, 1971)
  • Stylistic Advice: Use the Active Voice . . . Most of the Time
    "When a verb is in the active voice, the subject of the sentence is also the doer of the action.
    "The sentence 'John picked up the bag' is in the active voice because the subject, John, is also the thing or person doing the action of 'picking up.'
    "The sentence 'The bag was picked up by John' is in the passive voice because the subject of the sentence, bag, is the passive receiver of the action. . . .
    "Try to use the active voice. But realize that there are times when you will need to use the passive. If the object of the action is the important thing, then you will want to emphasize it by mentioning it first. When that's the case, you will use the passive voice."
    (Gary Provost, 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing. Mentor, 1985)
  • Three Steps to Determine Active Voice
    "Use the following three steps to write in the active voice:
    1. Locate the action (verb) of the sentence.
    2. Locate who or what is doing the action. This is the doer (subject) of the sentence. If the doer is implied and not written in or is being acted on by the action, the sentence is weak or passive. If the doer is written but not located just in front of the action, the sentence is weak.
    3. Put the doer immediately in front of the action. "Examples: The officer wrote the citation. (active voice)
    The dispatcher repeated the address. (active voice)
    A suspect was arrested. (passive voice)" (Barbara Frazee and Joseph N. Davis, Painless Police Report Writing, 2nd ed. Pearson, 2004)
  • "Tools of Thumb"
    "Here, then, are your tools of thumb:
    - Active verbs move the action and reveal the actors.
    - Passive verbs emphasize the receiver, the victim.
    - The verb to be links words and ideas. These choices are not merely aesthetic. They can also be moral and political. In his essay 'Politics and the English Language,' George Orwell describes the relationship between language abuse and political abuse, how corrupt leaders use the passive voice to obscure the unspeakable truths and shroud responsibility for their actions They say, 'It must be admitted, now that the report has been reviewed, that mistakes were made,' rather than, 'I read the report, and I admit I made a mistake.' Here's a life tool: always apologize in the active voice."
    (Roy Peter Clark, Writing Tools. Little, Brown, 2006)
    "With respect to writing, [my advice to beginning writers] would be to write clear, straight, fresh, active sentences with as many aggressive verbs as possible, and to avoid conventional journalistic writing."
    (David Mehegan, quoted by Donald M. Murray in Writing to Deadline. Heinemann, 2000)

Pronunciation: AK-tiv voys

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Active Voice in Grammar." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). Active Voice in Grammar. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Active Voice in Grammar." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 9, 2023).