How to use active voice—and when to use passive voice

How to use active voice—and when to use passive voice

You may recall your high school or college teacher’s red pen marks in the margin of your essays: Avoid passive voice! Yet doing that remains a challenge for many people, mostly because they’re unsure exactly what it is and how to write active voice. I recently met an MBA candidate who told me that he thought writing in active voice sounded too aggressive. He thought passive voice would make him sound, well, more passive.  While there’s a time and a place for passive voice, using active voice can make writing stronger, clearer, and more concise.

What is passive voice?

Passive voice occurs when the object of the action becomes the subject. The problem with passive voice is that it’s often unclear who or what is performing the action.

Passive voice can make writing:

  • Stiff sounding
  • Vague
  • Wordy

To illustrate the issues with passive voice, I’m going to switch some well-known lyrics into passive voice. The results show just how absurd passive voice can sound. I’ll build off of an example I read in  “The Grammar Girl,” when she made “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” passive.

In Marvin Gaye’s lyric, “I” is the subject, and “it” is the object. If you make the lyric passive, it becomes: “It was heard through the grapevine by me.” The object, “it,” is now in the front of the sentence, serving as the subject, making the lyric awkward and wordy.

Other examples

Instead of “All you need is love” (the Beatles), passive voice would make it: “Love is needed by you.” The subject, “you,” becomes less important when you place it at the end of the sentence. Using “is needed” instead of “need” makes the sentence (needlessly) wordy. And, to turn Queen’s “We Will Rock You” into passive voice, you’d say: “You will be rocked.” Not quite as catchy. Passive voice makes the rewrites awkward. Check out this article in the humor magazine McSweeney’s that put famous song titles from the 90s into passive voice.

Another issue with passive voice is that the subject is often missing, making the sentence unclear. Take this example: The property was damaged. Who or what damaged the property? Let’s say we know it was vandals who damaged the property. The sentence is clearer when you add the doer: Vandals damaged the property.

Why use active voice?

Active voice makes your writing stronger. Strunk and White in the writing bible The Elements of Style say, “The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive.” The book gives an example of active voice vs. passive. “I shall always remember my first trip to Boston” is better than: “My first trip to Boston shall always be remembered by me.” They explain that the latter sentence in passive voice is “less direct, less bold, and less concise.”

To write in active voice, name who or what is performing the action. Look at this active sentence with clear subject, action, and object: We’ll disseminate the reports to employees. “We” is the subject performing the action (“disseminate”) and “reports” is the object of the sentence.

How to convert a sentence into active voice

Here are some simple steps to convert sentences from passive into active voice.

Passive: The river was polluted by the corporation.

  1. Make the noun following the “by” phrase into the subject. It is the “doer” in this sentence.

The corporation ….

2. Turn the verb form “was polluted” (known as a past participle) into an active verb.

The corporation polluted …

3. Put the object “the river” in place after the verb.

Active: The corporation polluted the river.

Passive: New policies were recommended.

1. In this sentence, the subject (who performed the action) is missing. Let’s say we know who the doer is:

The committee …

2. Turn “were recommended” into an active verb.

The committee recommended (or recommends, to make more active) …

3. Put the object “new policies” in place after the verb.

Active: The committee recommends new policies.

Times to use passive voice

All that said, you’ll have times when passive voice is appropriate. Here are some instances:

  • Strategic ambiguity. If you want to avoid admitting that you did something or avoid sounding accusatory, you can use passive voice strategically.

For example, in an email to a colleague who missed a deadline, you might say:

“The deadline was missed” instead of sounding more accusatory with: “You missed the deadline.”

You’ll often see companies using passive voice if they’d like to avoid taking responsibility for something. For example: “The organization will be streamlined.” The company is not saying outright who is doing the streamlining, and to make matters worse, streamlining is often code for layoffs.

  • Don’t know who performed the action. You can’t say who the doer is if you don’t know. A famous example of this is when Kennedy was shot: “Shots were fired.”
  • Stress the object rather than the subject. While debated, this rhetorical choice is common in science writing. You may decide, in your writing, that it just doesn’t matter who is doing something. “The labs are inspected regularly” (passive) vs. “We inspect the labs regularly.” If you want to stress the object rather than the subject, just make sure that the sentence isn’t wordier than it needs to be.

Let’s return to lyrics. The artists intentionally used passive voice in the following songs; active voice would simply not sound as good. Lady Gaga would seem odd singing “My mother birthed me this way” in “Born This Way.”

“She Will Be Loved” (Maroon 5) would sound less original in the active “I will love her.” And because we don’t really know what awakened Beyoncé in “Halo,” the passive “It’s like I’ve been awakened” is more fitting.

Make an educated choice

Ultimately, while you consider whether passive voice is more appropriate for your point, remember that active voice, in general, makes your writing stronger.

Here are some great resources, some of them with practice sentences:

UNC’s Writing Center Tips and Tools

Plainlanguage.gov

Purdue Owl

Written by: Melissa Kaye, Guest Blogger

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