Active Voice

Definition

The active voice is a type of grammatical voice in which the subject of a sentence is also the agent of the verb—that is, it performs the action expressed by the verb. In active-voice sentences, the agent always comes before the verb. For example:
  • My friend bought a new car.” (My friend performed the action bought.)
  • She enjoys watching movies.” (She performs the action enjoys.)
  • Barney is talking to his sister.” (Barney is performing the action talking.)
A direct object is not always required for active-voice verbs. When an object is included, however, it must come directly after the verb. For example:
  • I am drinking some tea.” (with a direct object, some tea)
  • The boy hid his report card from his parents.” (with a direct object, his report card)
  • Dr. Johnson will speak at the convention.” (without a direct object)

When to use the active voice

Typically, the active voice is preferable to the passive voice, as it requires fewer words and expresses a clearer relationship between the verb and its agent. The active voice is generally thought of as the default voice in spoken and written English.
The following sections contain circumstances in which you should always try to use the active voice over the passive voice.

When there is no direct object

Because passive-voice sentences require direct objects (which are turned into subjects when converted from active to passive voice), sentences without direct objects must be active. For example:
  • That man has painted for more than 40 years.”
  • We departed immediately after the grand finale.”
  • The kids chatted for several minutes.”
These sentences cannot be put in the passive voice, because there is no direct object to become the subject. As an example, let’s try making the first sentence passive:
We can see that it no longer makes any sense when structured in the passive voice, so it must remain active.

When the agent is important

The active voice is commonly used to emphasize the importance of an agent in a sentence. By using the active voice, we can highlight an agent’s responsibility for or involvement with a particular action. The examples below demonstrate the differences between an important agent (active voice) and an unimportant agent (passive voice):
  • The employees drink lots of coffee before work every day.” (active voice—describes the employees in relation to the act of drinking coffee)
  • Lots of coffee is drunk by the employees before work every day.” (passive voice—describes the act of drinking coffee in relation to the employees)
  • Sir Isaac Newton discovered gravity more than 300 years ago.” (active voice—emphasizes Newton’s responsibility for the discovery of gravity)
  • Gravity was discovered by Sir Isaac Newton more than 300 years ago.” (passive voice—emphasizes the discovery of gravity over Newton’s involvement)

When the agent is known or relevant

You should always use the active voice if an agent is identifiable or contains information that is relevant to the rest of the sentence. For example:
  • Shawn stole a menu from the restaurant.” (The speaker knows or is familiar with Shawn.)
  • A veterinarian found an abandoned puppy by the road.” (The speaker knows that it was a veterinarian who found the puppy and believes the information is relevant.)
  • Dr. Li opened the hospital in 1989.” (The speaker knows the name of the person who started the hospital and the information is relevant to the conversation.)
On the other hand, when an agent is unknown or irrelevant, we usually switch to the passive voice and eliminate the agent altogether. For example:
  • A menu was stolen from the restaurant.”
  • An abandoned puppy was found by the road.”
  • The hospital was opened in 1989.”

When expressing an authoritative tone

The active voice may also be used to stress the authority of an agent. This authoritative tone is a strategy commonly used in copywriting, advertising, and marketing in order to convince consumers of the beneficial effects of a product or service. It may also be used to establish a command or to more strongly emphasize an agent’s responsibility for an action. For example:
  • Brushing your teeth at least twice a day is recommended by dentists.” (passive voice)
  • Dentists recommend brushing your teeth at least twice a day.” (active voice—emphasizes the authority of the dentists)
  • All of your broccoli must be eaten by you before dessert is served.” (passive voice)
  • You must eat all of your broccoli before dessert is served.” (active voice—emphasizes your responsibility to eat your broccoli)

When the agent is an ongoing topic

Agents that can perform multiple actions may be treated as topics. Making an agent an ongoing topic places emphasis on that agent instead of the actions it performs. When an agent acts as a topic, it usually remains the primary subject in most active-voice sentences used to describe or refer to it. This can be seen most prominently in works of fiction, in which protagonists typically perform numerous actions throughout a story.
For example, look at how the passage below describes a fictional protagonist named Caroline:
  • Caroline jumped back and gasped. She was afraid of spiders and despised the feeling of their silky webs on her skin. But she knew it was time to face her fears. Sighing and brushing herself off, Caroline slowly continued down the path toward the hill.”
Quiz

1. In the following active-voice sentence, which word is the agent of the verb?
“Damien built a bookshelf with his own two hands.”





2. Which of the following active-voice sentences does not contain a direct object?





3. In which of the following cases should you always use the active voice?







4. Which of the following sentences uses the active voice?





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