Why is the active voice better than passive voice in the following sentence? I really feel that the passive voice fits perfectly well.

"The marketplace is filled with intense competition" "Intense competition filled the marketplace"

"The jar is filled with sand" "Sand filled the jar"

  • Welcome to ELL.SE. Active voice is not automatically better than the passive voice; the passive exists for a reason, and there are cases where it is to be preferred. Please edit your post to provide some background: did a teacher or textbook tell you to avoid the passive? Is this a classroom exercise? – choster Oct 8 '18 at 16:55
  • @choster: The "background" (such as it is) is that I couldn't answer the matter of any possible semantic difference between two structurally similar examples that OP asked me about in an earlier comment. I see that sadness filled her eyes and her eyes filled with sadness are equally common. But do they mean the same? – FumbleFingers Oct 8 '18 at 17:02
  • @FumbleFingers "But do they mean the same?" That's not really what the question, as posed, has asked. (Although if they do mean different things, that would certainly be one reason for using the passive over the active.) In this case, however, I question whether any of the sentences are actually active in the first place. For instance, the word filled could be acting as an adjective rather than a verb. In other words, it could be a description of the jar's current state—not of a missing agent who performed a filling acting. – Jason Bassford Oct 8 '18 at 18:24
  • @JasonBassford: I quite agree it's debatable whether either sentence is actually active in the first place. Obviously this kind of reversal doesn't actually work very well with OP's specific jar/sand example, but both versions of my eyes/sadness example are very common, and seem to me to be semantically equivalent. Would you be happier if OP edited in my example instead, ignored the irrelevant reference to "subjunctive" and simply asked Are these both valid, and do they mean the same? If so, how exactly does the syntax work? – FumbleFingers Oct 8 '18 at 18:31
  • (If we had a migration path to ELU, I could easily be persuaded that this question would be a better fit there! :) – FumbleFingers Oct 8 '18 at 18:34

In the two examples you mention, the passive voice makes it difficult to tell if the action of filling is occurring now (verb form), or if the filling has already occurred (adjective form). These paint two very different pictures.


“The jar is filled with sand” is not really the kind of sentence they object to (or should be objecting to). Rather, it’s when the passive voice makes the sentence awkward and unwieldy (“I was told by him to shut the door” rather than “He told me to shut the door”) or, worse, when it’s used in a cowardly manner to avoid naming names (“mistakes were made”). But there are lots of valid reasons to use the passive voice — especially when the object of the sentence should be emphasized over the subject. (Notice above that I just used the passive voice — “when it’s used in a cowardly manner” — because it’s the WORD, not the USER, that’s more important to our discussion.)

“The jar is filled with sand” is perfectly fine. “Sand fills the jar” would be a little bit odd, in fact, unless you’re talking about the ACTION of filling up the jar, rather than the STATE of being filled with sand.

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