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Active Voice

Grammatical voice refers to the different grammar terms used to understand the relationship between the action done by the verb and the subjects, or objects, it affects. This explanation is all about the active voice.

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Active Voice

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Grammatical voice refers to the different grammar terms used to understand the relationship between the action done by the verb and the subjects, or objects, it affects. This explanation is all about the active voice.

Active voice definition

The active voice is used to show that the subject of the sentence is active and is performing an action on an object. In active voice sentences, the subject is the 'doer' of the verb. For example, in the sentence 'The man ate the burger' the subject (the man) is doing the action (eating).

We form the active voice through word order and the use of verbs. The word order in an active voice sentence looks like this: subject + verb + object. E.g. 'The mouse ate the cheese'. The mouse (the subject) ate (the verb) the cheese (the object).

Active voice sentences also contain active verbs. These are verbs in the past, present, or future tense that follow a subject. E.g. 'The woman painted her nails'. Active verbs are opposite to passive verbs, which are past participles that follow the words was/were. E.g. 'The nails were painted by the woman'.

Active voice examples

The active voice occurs in sentences where the subject acts. This means that the subject will come first in the sentence, followed by the verb and finally the object. Let's look at some examples of this.

SubjectverbObject
The early bird ate the worm
The childrenran the race
The man threw the ball

The active voice tends to follow a linguistic pattern that is referred to as subject-verb-object, this is sometimes shortened to SVO. This is a helpful way to spot the active voice within a text.

Active voice, Image of bird with worm, StudySmarterFig 1. The early bird catches the worm

Difference between active voice vs passive voice

Grammatical voice doesn't only include the active voice. The opposite of the active voice is the passive voice. This is very different to the active voice as here the subject is acted on by the verb. This means that instead of actively 'doing' the verb, the subject is instead passive. Below are three examples of passive voice:

  • The movie will be watched by the children
  • The fish was eaten by the cat
  • The tires were changed by the mechanic

As we can see, these sentences are constructed very differently from the ones we saw in the previous example. Let's look at how these sentences would be formed in the active voice:

  • The children will watch the movie.
  • The cat will eat fish.
  • The mechanic will change the tire.

There is a noticeable difference between how these sentences are constructed. The active voice is far stronger than the passive voice in these examples. This is because of the placement of the subject in the statements. In the active voice, the subject takes on the primary position in the sentence and so is active and dominant in how the sentence is constructed. However, in the passive voice, the subject is placed last and so the sentence becomes less authoritative.

There is also a difference between the verbs in the active and passive voice. Whereas the active voice contains an active verb, the passive voice must contain the following;

  • A conjugated form of the verb 'to be', e.g. is, was

  • The main verb in its past participle form, e.g. eaten, written, read.

Here is a handy chart summarising the key differences between the active and passive voice:

Active VoicePassive voice
The subject comes first in the sentence The subject comes last in the sentence
Direct and clear sentence structure The structure becomes less clear
Can be constructed in any form. Always made with a conjugated form of the verb 'to be'
Contains an active main verbContains the main verb in its past participle form

In general, the active voice is used more commonly in everyday speech and writing. The active voice is then very important in how we make sentences every day!

Importance of the active voice

The active voice is the grammatical voice that we use the most in everyday speech. You will find that most of the sentences you write are in the active voice. There are many reasons that the active voice is important to your writing.

The reader will feel present in the work

The active voice is most commonly used in the present and future tense. This puts the reader in the moment. Take this example from Edgar Allen Poe's 'The Raven' (1845):

Once upon a midnight dreary, as I pondered weak and weary,

Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore

While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,

As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.

Active Voice Raven StudySmarterFig 2. The Raven

Through the use of the active voice, the scene becomes more vivid than if the writer used the passive voice. The active voice helps to create a stronger connection to the action/scene for the reader. This is because sentences use both present and past tense verbs. When we consider this alongside the placement of the subject in the sentence, we can see that the imagery evoked becomes a lot clearer.

The active voice places the subject at the forefront of the sentence. The active role it takes means that the action of the sentence is more clearly and strongly depicted.

Active voice makes commands clearer

The active voice is also important in non-fiction. It is present in non-fiction texts such as newspaper articles, recipes, and instruction manuals. The active voice is commonly used here because it makes sentences sound clearer and more direct. It is important in this context as it can be used to create instructions and deliver facts efficiently. Let's look at an example of this from a newspaper article

A swimmer who was rescued off the coast of Co Kerry on Sunday night has been identified as Ruairí McSorley, who previously went viral online for a TV interview he gave in 2015 in which he became known as "Frostbit Boy". Fenit RNLI and Rescue 115 were requested to launch by the Irish Coast Guard at 11 am on Sunday after clothes were discovered at Castlegregory beach by a dog walker. Volunteer lifeboat crew with Fenit RNLI spotted a head above water hours later at 8.30 pm and took the swimmer onboard an all-weather lifeboat.

Easy to understand

The active voice follows the simple subject-verb-object (SVO) sentence formula. This makes it easier to understand as the structure is simple. As the active voice allows for clear and simple sentences, it means that concepts can be broken down into their simplest forms. This means that the active voice is especially useful for teaching.

The Active Voice in Literature

The active voice is an important component of how sentences are constructed in Literature. This is because the active voice allows the writer to tell a story in a clear and direct manner. Have a look at the example below from The Great Gatsby (1925)

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

Can you see the active voice in this extract? We can see that there are four examples of the active voice here. Let's use the table below to better understand this:

SubjectverbObject
Ifoundher mother's maid
Welockedthe door
Shewouldn't let go of the letter
Shetookit

We can see that the active voice is frequently used in this extract. This makes the paragraph direct and easy for the reader to understand. It is also used to create short bursts of information that provide readers with a clear view of the scene depicted. From this example, we can see how important the active voice is when used in literature.

Active Voice - Key takeaways

  • The active voice is a type of grammatical voice.
  • The active voice occurs in sentences where the subject actively performs the verb.
  • Sentences in the active voice will follow the subject-verb-object structure.
  • Active voice sentences contain active verbs.
  • The active voice is more common than the passive voice, as it is more clear and more direct.
  • The active voice is frequently used in both fiction and nonfiction texts.

Frequently Asked Questions about Active Voice

The active voice is a type of grammatical voice, commonly used in everyday speech, fiction, and nonfiction writing. It occurs when a sentence is written in SVO (subject-verb-object) structure and contains active verbs.

To write in the active voice you must follow the SVO structure. This will mean placing the subject at the start of the sentence followed by the verb and then finishing the sentence with the object. 

To write the active voice in the past tense, all you have to do is change your verb into the past tense. This will mean that a sentence that reads as 'The man throws the ball', will become, 'The man threw the ball'.  

In the active voice, the subject is the 'doer' and is performing the verb. On the other hand, in the passive voice, the subject is passive and is having the action performed upon it.

Active verbs are simply the main verb we use in the active voice. They are usually in the present simple tense but can also be in the past or future tense. Active verbs are the opposite of passive verbs, which are the past participle verb form found in passive voice sentences.

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

Select the two types of grammatical voice! 

What does SVO stand for

True or false - passive voice is more common than active voice

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