active and passive voice

One sign of weak, unclear writing is the overuse of the passive voice. If you want your work to radiate authority, be active and root out those passive sentences! Active sentences are clear, direct and strong. Passive sentences are indirect and carry far less impact. I’ll explain the difference in a moment, but first here’s an example of what I’m talking about. Which sentence do you think sounds better?

The guest was introduced by the teacher.The Great Escape OR
The teacher introduced the guest.

I’m hoping you said the second sounds better! How about these?

The concert will be attended by me tonight. OR
I will attend the concert tonight.

I think that one’s obvious. In each case, the first sentence is passive, the second is active.

What’s in a sentence?

It helps to understand some basic grammar. Sentences are composed of verbs, subjects and objects.

Verbs are action words – leap, think, drop, cry, etc.
The subject is the person or thing that is performing the action.
The object is the person or thing that is being acted upon.
Let’s take a simple sentence:
Sarah slammed on the brakes.
The subject is ‘Sarah’, the verb is ‘slammed’, and the object is ‘the brakes’.

Active versus passive sentences

‘Sarah slammed on the brakes’ is an active sentence. This is because the sentence focuses on the subject, Sarah, and what she is doing.

 In a passive sentence, the focus is on the object – that is, the thing being acted on. Our sentence would read: ‘The brakes were slammed by Sarah’. Doesn’t sound right, does it? You might want to fiddle around with the verb a bit … ‘The brakes were stepped on by Sarah’, ‘The brakes were activated by Sarah’ … but no. Yuck. Much better to stick to the active voice.

What about formal writing?

People tend to use the passive voice when writing formal documents, such as business documents and academic essays. They think it will give their writing an air of authority, but often it does the reverse. It can sound like the writer’s trying too hard, and not really sure of themselves. I’m not saying there is no place for passive sentences. Just keep in mind that if you overuse them, you run the risk of making your writing sound stilted. Or worse, unclear.

The bill was passed by parliament. OR
Parliament passed the bill.

Both sentences are formal. The second is more direct and easier to understand. This is particularly important in documents that are, by necessity, long and complex.

When are passive sentences appropriate?

Sometimes you are deliberately trying to focus attention on the object. For instance:
The beggar was given a coin by a passer-by.
You could quite easily have written this as an active sentence (A passer-by gave the beggar a coin), but, for the purposes of your story, you wanted to give more importance to the beggar. It’s a matter of emphasis, and your judgment call as a writer.

Another example of when you might want to use passive sentences is when the identity of the subject is unknown. For example, where a burglary has taken place but we don’t know who did it.
The bank was robbed.
Passive, yes, but still to the point and snappy. It sounds better than, ‘An unknown person robbed the bank.’
Or maybe you need to be tactful in a business document and not identify who was at fault.
Mistakes were made.
This might be better than finger pointing and allocating blame. It all depends on what you are trying to achieve with your writing.

Switching from passive to active

So how can you switch from the passive to the active voice? First, you have to be able to identify when you are in fact using passive sentences. Look at your writing. If you used ‘was’ and ‘by’ in the same sentence, chances are it is passive.
The ball was caught by Jim.
In most passive sentences, the object comes first. To make this sentence active, switch the order of the object and subject, putting the subject first.
Jim caught the ball.
Simple!

So remember, I’m not saying avoid passive sentences at all cost. However, if you use passive sentences, be aware that you are doing so. Think about the goal of the piece and what you are trying to achieve. If there’s no good reason to use the passive voice, try re-working it as an active sentence and see if it reads better!

Photo credit: J. Star / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA  Fabrice ROSE / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

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