Active and Passive Voice: Definitions and Examples

By Carly Forsaith, updated on May 11, 2023

If you'd like to know more about active and passive voices, how to form them, and when to use each one, you've come to the right place. This article will cover all of the aforementioned.

In short:

  • The active voice is when the subject does the doing, and the passive voice is when the subject is the recipient of the action.

What Are the Active and Passive Voices?

The active and passive voices are the only two possible voices you can use in the English language. But what exactly are they?

Okay, so you probably already know that every sentence has a subject and a verb.

  • If the subject is the one doing the action of the verb, then the sentence is active. 
  • However, in a passive sentence, the subject is not actively performing the action of the verb.

Let's take a look at an example.

The boy sings a song.

The song is sung by the boy.

The first sentence is in the active voice because the focus of the sentence is to talk about the boy singing. The boy is doing the action of the verb: singing. He is actively singing the song.

In the second sentence, however, the focus is now on the song. The boy has become secondary to the meaning of the sentence, or in other words, just a passive participant. Instead, the direct object 'song' has become the subject.

Yes, in both sentences, the boy is singing. But only the first sentence describes the active action of the boy singing.

How to Form a Passive Sentence

Say you have a sentence in the active voice, and you want to change it to the passive voice; how can you do that? First, you'll need to swap the object and the subject. Then, you'll need to fix the verbs a little. More on that later, but the simple formula is:

[correct form of the verb 'be'] + [past participle]

Let's try it with the following sentence:

Peter throws the ball.

The ball is thrown by Peter. 

Notice how the present indefinite 'throws' becomes the past participle 'thrown.' And because the original sentence is in the present tense, the verb 'be' stays in the present tense. Again, more on that later.

How to Form an Active Sentence

Now what if you have a sentence in the passive form and you want to make it active? First of all, you'll want to determine who is doing the action. This is pretty easy to do in a simple sentence, but it can quickly get complicated.

For example, in the following sentence, who do you think is doing the action?

A large number of dogs were adopted during the pandemic.

If you're the one who wrote the sentence, you probably know who did the adoption. But even if you didn't write it, I'm sure you can hazard a guess. It could be families, households, single women, single men, and so on. Once you've got the subject of your sentence, swap the rest of the sentence around so the subject (dogs) becomes the object, and fix the verb to the correct form.

Families adopted a large number of dogs during the pandemic. 

The adverbial clause 'during the pandemic' stays intact.

Active and Passive Voice Usage

As a general rule, it's best to use active voice when possible. It's the preferred form if you want to sound credible and you want your sentences to be straight-to-the-point.

However, there are times when the passive voice is more appropriate.

Here are those times:

When you want to emphasize the action rather than the doer:

If your sentence is more about what happened than who did it, then you're best off using the active voice. Take a look at the following sentence by way of example:

The July event was the most widely attended of the year.

It doesn't matter so much who attended the event. The point of the sentence is to say that the July event was the most popular. So it makes sense to make 'the July event' the subject and have the sentence be passive. If we wanted to say this with an active sentence, it would look like this:

More people attended the July event than any other this year.

This sentence is still grammatically correct, but it's longer than it needs to be and draws attention to 'people' when that's not really important.

When the doer is unknown:

Sometimes you don't actually know who did the action. You just know what was done. If this is the case, it's probably because it isn't of primary importance to know who did the action; the point of the sentence is just to talk about the action, like in the previous instance.

My bank card was stolen last night.

When writing about a general truth:

Sometimes there isn't actually a thing or person doing the action; there's only the action. That's often the case with sentences that state a general truth.

Hot chocolate is better consumed with marshmallows.

Notice how no specific person actually performs the action in the above sentence. It simply states the best way to drink hot chocolate.

When trying to remain vague:

If you want to remain vague about the doer of the action or avoid blame with your statement, the passive voice is great for that.

There's no denying that mistakes have been made.

The above sentence allows the speaker to acknowledge that mistakes have been made without having to place the blame on one single individual. It's a good way for an organization or group of people not to sell out one of their own when they make an apology, for instance.

The Passive Voice in Different Tenses

We've looked at the difference between the active and passive voice, and we've learned a little bit about how to construct a sentence in each voice. Now we're going to look at how to use these styles with different tenses. Because yes, you can make an active sentence in any tense, just as you can make a passive sentence in any tense.

Using verbs with the active tense is easy: you just refer to the usual conjugation rules. So I'm not going to go into detail about those here. If you want to learn more about tenses and conjugation, check out this article. Today, I'm just going to go over the verb tenses in the passive form because those are the tricky ones.

I'll even give you examples for each one.

So, are you ready? Let's dive in.

Past Indefinite

[Subject] + [was/were] + [past participle] + [rest of the sentence]

That was given to me by my grandmother.

Past Progressive

[Subject] + [was/were] + [being] + [past participle] + [rest of the sentence]

The decsision was being reconsidered when I arrived at the office.

Past Perfect

[Subject] + [had been] + [past participle] + [rest of the sentence]

The game had been lost before it even started.

Present Indefinite

[Subject] + [am/is/are] + [past participle] + [rest of the sentence]

He is considered one of the best coaches you can get.

Present Progressive

[Subject] + [am/is/are] + [being] + [past participle] + [rest of the sentence]

She is being groomed to take part in the next beauty pageant.

Present Perfect

[Subject] + [has/have] + [been] + [past participle] + [rest of the sentence]

The location of the luncheon has been changed to a spot downtown.

Future Simple

[Subject] + [will be] + [past participle] + [rest of the sentence]

They will be surprised when they find out.

The other future tenses aren't used in the passive voice, and neither is the past perfect progressive and present perfect progressive.

More Examples of Active and Passive Voice

We've seen quite a few examples of active and passive voice sentences throughout this article, but I'm going to show you a few more to make sure the difference is very clear.

We'll start with the active voice.

The children set the table for the guests.

I play the bass in a rock band.

The three amigos were traveling on a bus.

Now here are some sentences in the passive voice.

All citizens were called to vote for the upcoming election.

Do you know who that movie was directed by?

Purple is made by mixing blue and red.

Concluding Thoughts on Active and Passive Voice

That concludes this article on the active and passive voice. I hope you found it helpful and that you now feel confident using each one.

Let's summarize what we've learned:

  • The active voice describes a subject doing an action.
  • The passive voice describes an action being done to the subject.
  • Use the active voice as default.
  • Some situations lend themselves better to the passive voice.

If you enjoyed this article, you're going to love our Grammar Book, an online database full of free articles about various grammar concepts. Check it out!

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Written By:
Carly Forsaith
Carly Forsaith is one of the lead freelance writers for Carly is a copywriter who has been writing about the English language for over 3 years. Before that, she was a teacher in Thailand, helping people learn English as a second language. She is a total grammar nerd and spends her time spotting language errors on signs and on the internet.

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