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Active and Passive Voice

TIP Sheet

Grammatically correct writing is good. But not all grammatically correct writing is equally good. Better writers have learned that, most of the time, active verb constructions are better than passive ones. If you learn to identify passive voice verbs and recast them into active voice, your writing will improve.

Active voice is direct, strong, and easy to understand. Active voice verbs create movement, clarity, and impact. Passive voice, on the other hand, seems roundabout, weak, and evasive. Passive voice combines a "to be" verb (is, was, were, are) with a past-participle verb form (written, given, expected): "was managed," "were approved," "is to be completed."

(Note: past and present progressive verbs, "are shopping" or "were discussing" for example, are not passive voice. The -ing form requires the helper verb "to be." Similarly, verbs in the present and past perfect tenses, "have eaten," "had attended," are not passive; these perfect tenses use the participle form along with the helper verb "to have.")

Most sentences have both an actor that performs the action, and something which is acted upon, or receives the action. When the actor is the subject of the sentence, the active voice results. In English, we expect to hear statements in that sequence: actor, verb, receiver of the action:

Bob writes limericks in his spare time.

It is, however, possible to write this sentence another way, making the limerick the subject of the sentence. In passive voice the actor, that is, the one who did it, is not the subject of the sentence. The actor, in this case the limerick writer, is moved into a prepositional phrase:

The limerick was written by Bob in his spare time.

The expected actor-verb-receiver sequence is reversed; instead the pattern here is receiver-verb-actor. Limerick becomes the subject of the sentence, yet it is still the receiver of the action (that is, the limerick did not do the writing).

The problem with passive voice is that your brain has to take a moment to unravel this. There are more words, for one thing, and the grammar is more complicated. A moment doesn't seem like long, but when you are reading a document loaded with passive voice constructions, the moments add up. That's why it seems to take so much time and effort to read some government publications–or poorly written textbooks. Writing filled with passive voice constructions are slow to read and difficult to understand.

Passive voice is not intrinsically evil, nor should you aim to eliminate it at every instance. If the limerick itself is more important than who wrote it, for example, passive voice may be appropriate. In general, place the most important word near the beginning of the sentence, as mass media writers do; this may result in a passive construction, but more often it will not.

The missing actor
Sometimes the use of passive voice causes the actor to disappear entirely. Here, we are interested primarily in when the limerick was written:

The limerick was written last week. (Who wrote it is not an issue.)

However, if you use passive voice out of habit rather than by choice, the disappearance of the actor may have unintended consequences. In informative writing, for example, who said it is often as important as what was said. If you construct sentences that bury the actor in a prepositional phrase or omit the actor entirely, your argument may appear evasive and weak. Compare the following:

Passive voice, actor omitted:
Reporters have been told that traffic, noise, and congestion would result from the proposed development. (Who told them? And are the reporters the most important thing here?)

Active voice, actor as subject:
The development will bring traffic, noise, and congestion to nearby Spyglass Road, say neighbors of the proposed site.

In fact, a writer may deliberately use passive voice to break bad news or to deny responsibility for something unpleasant. Business writers know this.


Passive voice, actor omitted:
Your auto insurance policy, unfortunately, will not be renewed in October.

However, a vast number of passive constructions exist in college and business writing with no good justification.

The spelling and grammar checker in some word processing programs (Microsoft Word, for example) can be set to report to you how many passive constructions appear in your document. Try recasting some of those sentences into active voice to achieve no more than 10 percent passive voice constructions.

If you learn to prefer active voice whenever possible, your writing is almost certain to improve.

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