Active is better – or is it?

Many editors, style guides and university professors will ask writers to use active voice for preference, some professors have been known to go as far as forbidding their students to use the passive voice. They can’t all be wrong, can they?

The short answer is ‘no’, they’re not wrong – most of the time. As the name suggests, active voice is more energetic and makes your writing more dynamic. Passive voice should mainly be reserved for occasions when:


a] the person(s) carrying out the action is/are unknown;


The bank has been held up three times this year! (passive)


Thieves have held up the bank three times this year! (active)


b] the recipient of the action is far better known, and has a far higher level of recognition, than the ‘actor’;

(Let’s consider something as simple as a dog biting a man.)

Active voice: The dog bit the man.

Passive voice: The man was bitten by a dog.

If the man is famous, or even the subject of the article being written, and the dog just any old mutt, then the account will have more impact if the passive voice is used; compare:


The Prime Minister was bitten by a stray dog as he approached the House of Commons.


A stray dog bit the Prime Minister as he approached the House of Commons.


c] the writer does not wish to reveal who the ‘actor’ is; 


Secrets were leaked by someone in government. (passive)


Someone in government leaked secrets. (active)


Passive voice is often used in this way to avoid blame:“Mistakes were made.”





d] scientific reports

 Patients in the placebo group were monitored over a six-week period.


Passive voice is commonly used in scientific writing, unless a well-known scientist has made a breakthrough; then it would be more effective to use the active voice.

Isaac Newton supposedly discovered gravity when an apple fell on his head as he was sitting under a tree.


However, the examples above are the exceptions that prove the rule. Whenever possible, active voice is preferable.



Learners may experience difficulties when they first start playing an instrument. (active)


Difficulties may be experienced when learners first start playing an instrument.


Make your writing more impactful by keeping your sentences active whenever you can, but don’t change passive to active for the sake of it if it then reads unnaturally.




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