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Active vs. Passive Voice

Download version Active vs Passive Voice

Overview: Using the passive voice in academic writing frequently causes problems for college students. Simply stated, sentences that contain the passive voice are often too wordy and lack focus, which makes it difficult for your reader to understand your main point. Active voice is usually more direct and lively while passive voice is less direct and more descriptive.

Generally, academic writing is most effective and clear in the active voice. Most academic disciplines, not all, encourage students to use the active rather than passive voice. Look for forms of the verb be (be, am, is, are, was, were, being, been) which frequently signal the passive voice. These words do have legitimate uses and are sometimes necessary, but if you can use an active verb instead, you should.


Example 1

Passive Voice: My cell phone was misplaced by me.

This sentence is overly wordy, and can be simplified by changing it to the active voice.

Active Voice: I misplaced my cell phone.


Example 2

Passive Voice: The door was slammed, causing the whole porch to shake.

In this sentence, it isn’t clear who slammed the door. If that is what the author wanted, that’s fine, but usually in academic writing we need more information.

Active Voice: Tricia slammed the door, causing the whole porch to shake.


Example 3

Passive Voice: It has been claimed that childhood obesity is the result of shorter lunch breaks.

Again, it isn’t clear who claimed this as a cause of childhood obesity.

Active Voice: The nutritionist claimed that childhood obesity is the result of shorter lunch breaks.


Example 4

Passive Voice: Mistakes were made.

You’ve probably heard this sentence in apologies from public figures (former President Nixon). Note that it does not state who made mistakes, but uses passive voice as a rhetorical device to avoid placing blame on a particular person. In the active voice, it is obvious who is at fault.

Active Voice: We made mistakes.

Practice: Look through a piece of your writing and underline verb phrases that use a form of to be followed by another verb (e.g. was slammed, has been claimed, were made). Ask whether the subject–who or what performs the action–is clear in each case. If not, rephrase to clarify the subject and use an active verb (e.g. Tricia slammed). Be creative and learn to experiment with new arrangements of words; try to choose verbs that convey direct meaning and that can stand alone without forms of to be.

Copyright (C) 2010. All rights reserved.

this handout is part of a library of instructional materials used in California State University, Long Beach’s writing center, the Writer’s Resource Lab. Educators and students are welcome to distribute copies as long as they do so with attribution to all organizations and authors. Commercial distribution is prohibited.


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