The Ultimate Guide to Active and Passive Voice
Whether you're new to the world of professional writing or you've been freelancing for years, you've probably heard lectures about passive and active voice. At Textbroker, you'll even find the words “Use active voice” bolded in the instructions of many managed clients. But what does that actually mean, and why does passive voice get such a bad rap?
Chris ScaliseSupervisor of Editorial / Staff Writer
What is Passive Voice?
Before we can explain when and why to use active and passive voice, we have to define the terms themselves:
• With active voice, the subject performs the action. (The lumberjack demolished the tree.)
• With passive voice, the subject is acted upon. (The tree was demolished by the lumberjack.)
In the active example above, the lumberjack is the subject and the tree is the direct object. When we make it passive, the tree becomes the subject.
Here are some other examples, borrowed from popular songs:
Active: I shot the sheriff.
Passive: The sheriff was shot by me.
Active: Oops…I did it again.
Passive: Oops…it was done by me again.
What is Passive Voice?
There are a few reasons why many editors, professors and content managers discourage using the passive voice:
1) It’s less direct than active voice.
Active: The lumberjack demolished the tree.
Passive: The tree was demolished by the lumberjack.
The active sentence packs more of a punch, and it immediately establishes who’s doing what.
2) Active voice can convey the same message in fewer words.
Active: Both leaders will sign the treaty. (6 words)
Passive: The treaty will be signed by both leaders. (8 words)
When your writing contains unnecessary prepositions, auxiliary (“to be”) verbs and other fluff, your narrative suffers. Tight, impactful writing is about learning to say more with less, and passive voice makes this extremely difficult.
3) Passive voice often leads to awkward prepositional phrases.
Active: I will always love you.
Passive: You will always be loved by me.
Look at the passive example above. “You will always be loved by me” sounds horribly stilted, but if we remove the prepositional phrase “by me,” it changes the meaning of the sentence.
4) Passive statements are often vague or unclear.
Active: The feral cat carried her baby across the street.
Passive: The baby was carried across the street by the feral cat.
Wait, what? Whose baby? Should we do something?
5) Some passive statements just sound silly.
Active: The intrepid athlete climbed Mount Everest.
Passive: Mount Everest was climbed by the intrepid athlete.
How to Spot Passive Voice
If you want to pinpoint any uses of passive voice in your own writing, there are a few ways of going about it.
• Search your writing for any uses of the verb “to be” (is, are, was, were, has been, being, etc…). Not every usage denotes passive voice, but you’ll find passive statements much more easily when you locate these auxiliary verbs.
• Paste your content into the Hemingway App. This tool will highlight passive phrases in green.
Is it Always Wrong to use Passive Voice?
No. In fact, passive phrasing can even be essential in the right context. Use this as a general rule:
If either voice will suffice, always shoot for active voice. In those less frequent instances where passive voice makes more sense, go with passive voice.
Which raises the next question: When does passive voice make more sense?
1. When the action is more important than the actor. Ex: “Prop 63 was supported by a majority of California voters.”
2. When the actor is unimportant or unknown. Ex: “The park was vandalized during the night.”
3. When you want to avoid casting blame or making assumptions. Ex: “Mistakes were made during the planning phase.”
4. When passive voice improves clarity or flow. Ex: “The candidate was defeated by a narrow margin.”
Switching from Passive to Active Voice
Once you locate instances of unnecessary passive voice, you can easily fix them. Let’s use the follow passive statement as an example:
Passive: The suspect was apprehended by the officer.
To modify this sentence from passive to active voice:
1) Identify the actor (sometimes called an agent) in the sentence – this is the person, place, thing or idea that’s causing the action. In other words, this is the do-er rather than the receiver. In this case, the actor is the officer.
2) Rearrange the sentence so that the actor is clearly performing the action. The actor should appear before the verb. In this case:
Active: The officer apprehended the suspect.
This makes the sentence both clearer and more concise.
Now that you’re familiar with the differences between active and passive voice, use the guidelines in this post to make smart decisions about the voice of your sentences. If a client asks for active voice only, you have the tools to make sure you deliver what they want. Otherwise, try to use active voice wherever possible to keep your content clear, to-the-point, and direct.
If you have questions about following client instructions, using active and passive voice, or other author-related issues, please reach out to Author Services at email@example.com for prompt assistance.
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