1 Minute Writing Tip: Active v Passive Voice

Know when to use the active and passive voice in your business or technical documents? Maybe?

Let’s look at voice for a minute.

What does it mean to write in the active voice?

Is the passive voice as *bad* as people say it is?

Obviously not.

The voice tells us whether the subject of the sentence

  • performs an action (active) or
  • receives the action (passive).

In English we have two voices: active and passive.

Active Voice

In the active voice, the subject performs the action expressed by the verb:

James Joyce wrote Ulysses.

Passive Voice

In the passive voice, the subject (James Joyce) receives the action expressed by the verb (to be):

Ulysses was written by James Joyce.

The passive voice: is made up of the verb “to be” with a past participle

Tense                   Passive voice form

Present                it is washed

Past                      it was washed

Future                  it will be washed

Present perfect  it has been washed

Past perfect        it had been washed

Future perfect   it will have been washed

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When to use the passive voice

So, when should you use one and not the other?

Use the passive voice to:

  • Identify the receiver of the action rather than the performer
    The goalkeeper was hit by the defender.
  • Identify the receiver of the action when the performer is unknown or unimportant:
    The ball was dropped.
  • Avoid identifying the performer of the action
    Taxes are collected every year.

Why use the passive voice?

EF Ireland highlight that the passive voice emphasizes the action being performed rather than the person doing the action

The passive voice has two main uses:

  1. To present ideas objectively. That is, the results are more important than the person doing the word

“The surveys were tabulated.”

  1. To avoid using names or assigning blame

“An unfortunate error has occurred.”

How is the passive voice constructed?

It starts with something, rather than a person

It uses a two-word verb

“is” or “was” followed by a past-tense verb

It sometimes ends with a ‘by’ phrase, i.e. to identify the doer of the action.

The ball was kicked by John.

As opposed to

John kicked the ball.

Notice that one is shorter and more direct than the other.

When to use the passive voice

Use it to show interest in the person or object that experiences an action rather than the person or object that performs the action.

In other words, the most important thing or person becomes the subject of the sentence.

3 Passive Voice Examples

  • The passive voice is used frequently. (= we are interested in the passive voice, not in who uses it.)
  • The house was built in 1654. (= we are interested in the house, not in who built it.)
  • The road is being repaired. (= we are interested in the road, not in the people who are doing the repairs.)

When to use the Active Voice

The active voice is preferred for most type of business writing because it is shorter, more personal, and more forceful. It has a certain type of confidence you don’t get with the passive.

In active voice sentences, the subject of the verb performs the action:

I wrote the book. (Not: The book was written by me.)

You made a mistake.

Why use the active voice in business documents?

Plain Language recommends that the active voice makes documents stronger by showing responsibility or giving credit for an action.

When we avoid showing responsibility, we often don’t give enough information to explain the problem and how to fix it.

If you don’t never identify the doer of the action, it sounds vague and abstract.

  • Cut Passive: New requirements (subject) were introduced (action) to strengthen the banking system.
  • Active: The Banks Act of 1985 (subject) introduced (action) new requirements (object) to strengthen the banking system.

By eliminating the helping verb, the active voice sentence generally uses fewer words to communicate the same information.

  • Passive: Mr. Doe (subject) was told (action) by the bank official that he would need to provide additional information. (16 words)
  • Active: The bank official (subject) told (action) Mr. Doe (object) he would need to provide additional information. (13 words)

Finally, active voice more closely resembles spoken language; hopefully ideal spoken language. When we speak, we generally use the active voice without thinking. Our writing should reflect this.

Active v Passive: Which should I use?

Biomedical Editor suggests that “Just as varying the sentence length in your scientific manuscript creates more variety and interest for your readers, so, too, does using both active and passive voice.”

Choose the active voice whenever possible.

Choose the passive voice if you have a good reason to do so.

Consider passive voice when:

  • The performer is unknown, irrelevant, or obvious.
  • The performer is less important than the action.
  • The recipient is the main topic.

Summary

When writing business documents, such as employee handbook or policy manuals, it’s important to know when to use the active or passive voice. Neither is right or wrong. Each has its place.

However, if you read your document and notice that you habitually use one or the other, then consider revising the text as, more than likely, you use this phrasing unconsciously, rather than intentionally.

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