When your company name is Active Voice Communications, you invariably get questions about active and passive voice. Do you never use passive voice? Do you hate it? Is it just absolutely the worst thing ever?
No, I don’t hate it. Yes, I use it. But I am selective about when to use it. And that’s what I try to teach.
Active vs. Passive Voice Defined
Let’s start by looking at what we mean when we talk about passive vs. active voice.
- A verb is in the passive voice when the subject of the sentence is acted on.
- A verb is in the active voice when the subject is doing the acting.
(Shout-out to dictionary.com)
A few sample sentences should help illuminate passive vs. active voice.
Passive: The winning run was scored by Ron.
Active: Ron scored the winning run.
Passive: The groceries were bought and the dinner was cooked by Sue.
Active: Sue bought the groceries and cooked dinner.
These examples alone should make you a believer in active voice, but I’ll keep going.
Why Editors (and Readers) Like Active Voice
When I talk about active voice vs. passive voice to writing students and professionals alike, I stress the benefit to the reader. Here are a few key reasons we like active voice.
It’s clearer and more direct.
Take another look at the sentences above. Those written in active voice are shorter, clearer and more direct — all imperative to good writing.
It’s easier on the reader.
Part of the reason active voice tends to be easier on the reader is the simplicity of the sentence. It’s clear who is doing what (and to whom/what).
The other reason is that active voice aligns with the way your brain reads action. As you’re reading a sentence, you are accustomed to subject-verb-object. It’s easier to understand a sentence faster when the flow is logical. That means starting with who/what is doing the action, followed by the action, rather than the other way around.
It’s more interesting.
On top of being cumbersome to read, passive voice is frankly less interesting. That’s in large part because it focuses you on the wrong thing. Consider these two examples:
Example 1: The quarterback drew his arm back, paused, and launched the ball into the end zone.
Example 2: The ball was drawn back by the quarterback and was then launched into the end zone.
I’d argue the first sentence is not only clearer and easier to read — it’s more interesting, too. The quarterback’s actions are what are interesting. And yes, the first sentence is the one written in active voice.
When Is Passive Voice OK?
OK, now that I’ve made the case for active voice, let’s get to the question you’ve been wondering about: When is passive voice acceptable?
I argue for two distinct situations and one slightly fuzzy one.
When you don’t know who performed the action.
If you don’t have enough information to lead with who or what engaged in the activity, you may opt to lead with the object.
Example 1: My wallet was stolen.
Example 2: The election was rigged.
Now, I could say “someone stole my wallet” or “someone rigged the election,” but in these cases, we’d rather focus on the object and the action.
When you don’t want to say who performed the action.
This use of passive voice probably won’t come up in a lot of writing, but when you don’t want to assign blame, passive voice sort of naturally creeps in. Look for it in conversation — especially with children and politicians.
Example: The necklace was lost.
It’s a terrible sentence, but hey, if it helps me avoid saying *I* lost the necklace, well, OK.
When the object is effectively the subject (or the point of your sentence).
This one’s a little blurrier, but sometimes, we want to focus on or highlight the object.
For example: The corporate dress code was argued for hours before being added to the employee manual.
Maybe the writer wants to focus on the code and the manual, rather than the people doing the arguing. And if that’s the case, I’d argue it’s fine.
So, there you have it. Yes, we prefer active voice, because it makes life easier and more interesting for our readers. But no, passive voice is not to be avoided completely. Like a lot of rules in writing, active voice is a guideline. And when you have strategic reasons for not following it, it absolutely can be OK.