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How to Write in the Active Voice & When to Write in Passive Voice

written by: Trent Lorcher • edited by: SForsyth • updated: 1/17/2012

Writing in active voice is much more than changing linking verbs to action verbs. It involves sentence structure, word choice, and effective use of punctuation. Learn how to write effectively in active voice and engage your readers.

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    Active is an Attitude

    Your teachers have told you over and over that active voice in writing is preferred over passive voice in writing, but their instruction on creating active voice in writing is usually limited to getting rid of "to be" verbs. Active voice in writing, however, is much more than making basic verb changes. It requires making a conscious decision to become an active writer.

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    Create Action and Movement

    Engage your reader with movement and action:

    1. Make your sentences produce action.
      • Inactive Sentence: Romeo and Juliet was read by the teacher.
      • Active Sentence: The teacher read Romeo and Juliet.
      • Inactive Sentence: A sudden decline in my essay grade happened.
      • Active Sentence: The teacher gave me an 'F' or My essay grade plummeted.

    2. Use verbs to activate description.
      • Inactive Description: He cooly walked into the room.
      • Active Description: He strutted into the room.
      • Inactive Description: He talked hesitantly.
      • Active Description: He stuttered.

    Now that you've learned two methods for making your writing more active, take a look at a previous essay or article and look for specific ways to create action and movement.

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    Know When to Use Passive Voice in Writing

    The answer to when to use the passive voice in writing is easy: use it rarely. Active voice creates emphasis and energy (as opposed to Energy and emphasis are created by the active voice.). Here are times when passive voice is acceptable:

    1. To emphasize the object of the action. Because the writer of the following sentence wishes to emphasize his face (the object of the action), he inverts the sentence order.
      • Active: Bob wrote intricate designs on my face.
      • Passive: My face was covered with intricate designs.
    2. To deemphasize the subject of the action. The writer in the following sentence chose to emphasize the end of class and not the person doing the dismissing.
      • Active: The teacher dismissed the class.
      • Passive: Class was dismissed.
    3. To avoid blame.
      • Active: I made mistakes
      • Passive: Mistakes were made.
    4. To provide continuity and consistency.
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    Prefer Verbs

    Many English verbs have been made into nouns. That doesn't mean you have to use them.

    1. Use strong verbs instead of nominalized verbs.

    • Nominalization: I took his idea under consideration.
    • Strong Verb: I considered his idea
    • Nominalization: Make a connection between the sprinkler valve and the pipe.
    • Strong Verb: Connect the sprinkler pipe to the valve.

    2. Use nominalized verbs in the following circumstances:

    • When it refers to a previously discussed topic or action.
      • You decide once and live with the decision.
    • When it allows you to replace many words with one word.
      • The fact that he decided to drink and drive ended his life.
      • The decision to drink and drive ended his life.

    3. Don't turn your nouns into verbs.

    4. Avoid stacked nouns. For example: the education acquisition overseer assistant or the resident word qualifications expert.

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