Understanding the difference between active and passive sentences can improve the clarity and power of your writing dramatically. But surprisingly few people even know what these terms mean. Including me, until I started to train other people to write more effectively.
They don’t teach this at school, and they should, because it’s a powerful weapon for getting results from your writing.
There are two ‘voices’ you can use when you write a sentence.
Active: The woman ate a fly.
Passive: A fly was eaten by the woman.
What is different about these two sentences? (It’s OK to state the bleeding obvious here…)
In the active version the woman is at the start of the sentence. In the second sentence, she’s been moved to the end. (No s**t, Sherlock!)
Secondly the verb (or doing word) has changed from ate to was eaten. The action is still taking place in the past, but the tense has changed. If you’re a native English speaker, you probably don’t need to know how or why it changes – you do it automatically when you speak or write.
Finally the passive version above has an extra word in it – by.
What’s important to notice here is that the emphasis has changed, but not the meaning. The woman and the fly swap position, giving the fly more prominence. That’s the basic difference between the two ‘voices’. Does it make any difference? You’d be surprised…
The pages in this section will guide you on when to choose active voice or passive voice, and why it’s important.