Active Voice Definition
Active voice is a grammar device. It can be defined as a type of clause or sentence that contains a subject taking some type of action or interacting with an object or another person. The clause or sentence’s emphasis is placed on who or what is taking the action rather than who or what is on the receiving end of said action.
Active voice always follows the same structure: subject + verb + object. The subject is always the one performing the action—expressed by the verb—and therefore interacting with the object. For example:
“Maxine washed the dishes after breakfast.”
In this sentence, Maxine is the subject, washed is the verb, and the dishes is the object Maxine is acting on.
Active Voice vs. Passive Voice
Passive voice is the direct opposite of active voice. It flips the structure of active voice so that the object on the receiving end of an action is treated as the clause or sentence’s subject. Because of this, the action requires a helping verb—a form of to be, to have, or to do. While passive voice technically conveys the same idea as its active counterpart, it does so in a more roundabout way.
Here are some basic examples of active voice compared to passive voice:
- Active Voice: “Jason ran five miles before the sun came up.”
- Passive Voice: “Before the sun came up, five miles were run by Jason.”
In the first sentence, Jason is the subject, ran is the verb, and five miles is the object. In the second sentence, five miles because the subject, even though it is receiving an action. Ran becomes were ran to convey what action five miles
- Active Voice: “Anne Marie prefers the color red.”
- Passive Voice: “The color red is preferred by Anne Marie.”
In the first sentence, Anne Marie is the subject, prefers is the verb, and the color red is the object. In the second sentence, the color red becomes the subject, and prefers becomes is preferred.
- Active Voice: “Both lawyers signed on the dotted line.”
- Passive Voice: “The dotted line was signed by both lawyers.
In the first sentence, both lawyers is the subject, signed is the verb, and dotted line is the object. In the second sentence, dotted line becomes the subject, and signed becomes was signed.
This list demonstrates that, with a few minor tweaks, it is quite simple to change any sentence from passive to active voice.
Why Writers Use Active Voice
Active voice is the gold standard for most types of writing. It is the clearest, most concise, and easily readable voice in which to communicate with the reader. With active voice, readers can easily understand what is happening. It allows writing to make a greater impact on the reader as it is the most direct way to convey an idea.
While passive voice is not necessarily bad or wrong, it is good to be aware of whether writing employs active or passive voice. In some cases, passive voice may be a better choice stylistically.
Examples of Active Voice in Literature
1. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
The following passage describes Daisy and how she reacts to receiving a letter from Gatsby, even though she is engaged to another man:
She began to cry—she cried and cried. I rushed out and found her mother’s maid and we locked the door and got her into a cold bath. She wouldn’t let go of the letter. She took it into the tub with her and squeezed it up into a wet ball, and only let me leave it in the soap dish when she saw that it was coming to pieces like snow.
Fitzgerald is clearly writing in active voice. In the first bolded example, we is the subject, locked is the verb, and the door is the object. In the next example, she is the subject, let go is the verb, and the letter is the object. In the next sentence, she is once again the subject, took is the verb, and it is the object (a pronoun referring back to the letter).
2. Gary Paulsen, Hatchet
The following is an excerpt from the novel’s opening passage. Protagonist Brian is heading out on what will prove to be the adventure of his life:
Brian Robeson stared out the window of the small plane at the endless green northern wilderness below. It was a small plane, a Cessna 406—a bush plane—and the engine was so loud, so roaring and consuming and loud, that it ruined any chance for conversation.
In the first example, Brian Robeson is the subject, stared out is the verb (or verb phrase, in this case), and window is the object. In the second example, it (referring to the loud engine) is the subject, ruined is the verb, and any change for conversation is the object. Note that the object in this case is technically a prepositional object. Those types of object need further context for the sentence or clause to make sense. If the sentence just read “It ruined any chance,” the reader would wonder “Any chance of what?” Thus, for conversation is added for clarity.
4. Gregory David Roberts, Shantaram
In Roberts’s novel, which is based on real events from his life, the protagonist Lindsay escapes from an Australian prison and flees to India. In the following excerpt, Lindsay is being tortured and reflects on his experiences and the knowledge he has gained:
It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to me in an instant, while I was chained to a wall and being tortured. I realised, somehow, through the screaming of my mind, that even in that shackled, bloody helplessness, I was still free: free to hate the men who were torturing me, or to forgive them. It doesn’t sound like much, I know. But in the flinch and bite of the chain, when it’s all you’ve got, that freedom is a universe of possibility. And the choice you make between hating and forgiving, can become the story of your life.
This an interesting passage because the components of active voice are more complicated. The first example has a complex subject—the heart of it—and a prepositional object—to me. The second example uses a helping verb—was changed—and another prepositional object—to a wall. The final example is even more intricate. I is both the subject and the object. The subject and verb are separated from the object by several parenthetical phrases—somehow; through the screaming of my mind; that even in that shackled, bloody helplessness. Additionally, I was still free is a complex object. This type of object includes a noun or pronoun and a verb/verb phrase; in this case, I is the pronoun and was free is the verb phrase.
4. Vivian Gornick, The Odd Woman and the City
Gornick’s memoir details her time in New York City and how it shaped her and her relationships with others. In this excerpt, Gornick discusses how spending time with her friend Leonard is enjoyable but draining:
At the end of an evening together, one or the other of us will impulsively suggest that we meet again during the week, but only rarely does the impulse live long enough to be acted upon. We mean it […] but going up in the elevator to my apartment, I start to feel on my skin the sensory effect of an evening full of irony and negative judgment.
Each example of active voice is intricate both because of the sentence structures and the complexity of the components. Breaking down the first sentence leaves the following active sentence: “One of us will suggest we meet again.” In this simplified example, one of us is the subject, will suggest is the verb, and we meet again is the object. As previously noted, this kind of object is a complex object. The second example—simplified to “I start to feel the sensory effect”—contains a prepositional object. An evening full of irony and negative judgment is needed to fully comprehend the statement.
Further Resources on Active Voice
This post on the Grammerly blog showcases the differences between active and passive voice.
Daily Writing Tips discusses why active voice strengthens writing.
ThoughtCo provides examples of how using active or passive voice can be a stylistic choice.
- Passive Voice