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Choosing Between the Active and the Passive Voice

“Sometimes the passive voice is better than the active”

“Passive-sounding constructions can do harm”

“The active voice is usually, but not always, the better choice”

Also see exercise in using the active voice.

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Your Guides to Excellent Writing

Sometimes the passive voice is better than the active

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere
 

Use the active voice. Nearly every writing handbook offers that standard advice.

The active voice (when the subject performs the action) is preferable to the passive voice (when the subject receives the action) because the active voice is more concise and direct.

Compare "I handled the account," for example, with "The account was handled by me."

To choose the active voice over the passive voice makes particularly good sense in business writing, where the preferred style is one of emphasis and vigor.

Well, it is good advice as far as it goes, but it doesn't go far enough. I would amend it this way: Prefer the active voice--unless you have a good reason to use the passive voice.

Here are five situations in which the passive voice is more effective than the active. Use the passive voice:

1. To emphasize the receiver of the action.

Compare "Our employees routinely disregard the new quality control procedures" with "The new quality control procedures are routinely disregarded by our employees."

The active voice would be preferable in a paragraph on the employees, whereas the passive voice would be preferable in a paragraph on the new quality control procedures.

The question to ask yourself is, where do you want your emphasis? When the receiver of the action is more important than the performer, use the passive voice.

2. To deemphasize the performer of the action.

Compare "Our engineers have installed a more powerful CPU to give you faster processing" with "A more powerful CPU has been installed to give you faster processing."

When there is no advantage in the reader's knowing the performer of the action, use the "truncated" passive voice, in which the performer--"our engineers"--is dropped from the sentence.

Likewise, when the performer of the action is either unknown or relatively unimportant, use the truncated passive. (Compare "Everyone `round the world heard the shot" with "The shot was heard `round the world.")

3. To avoid responsibility.

Compare "You mishandled the account" with "The account was mishandled." When the active voice seems indiscreet or calls unwanted attention to the performer of a negative action, use the "diplomatic" passive.

4. To create smooth connections between sentences.

Compare these two passages:

"Management must decide whether it will insist on more flexibility in hiring part-time workers. The likelihood that the unionized workers will strike should influence its decision."

"Management must decide whether it will insist on more flexibility in hiring part-time workers. Its decision should be influenced by the likelihood that the unionized workers will strike."

When the active voice breaks the flow of thought from the previous sentence, use the passive voice.

5. To maintain a consistent viewpoint or sequence of subjects.

Compare these two passages:

"Our auditors have reviewed our accounting practices and found them to be adequate. We should convey this to our investors. The capital they provide allows us to operate."

"Our accounting practices have been reviewed and found to be adequate. These findings should be conveyed to our investors, who provide us with operating capital."

When the active voice creates a disjointed sequence of subjects, use the passive voice.

So the next time you are criticized for using the passive voice--by either a human reader or a computer-programmed grammar checker--don't submit passively to the indictment. Ask your critic to comment on whether your use of the passive isn't justified under one of the five situations described above.

If your critic gives you a puzzled look or responds with a blank screen, you may want to stand behind your choice. After all, why would the passive voice exist if it served no useful function?

 


Your Guides to Excellent Writing

Passive-sounding constructions can do harm

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere
 

Well, it happened again.

 

I was planning an on-site writing seminar with a client, who asked me to stress the advantages of using the active voice rather than the passive.

 

I always do.

 

Although the passive voice is sometimes useful, the active voice is shorter, more direct, and more emphatic. Often, however, the problem is not the overuse of the passive voice; it’s the overuse of passive-sounding constructions.

 

In the active voice, the subject of the sentence does the acting, as in “I wrote the proposal.” In the passive voice, the subject is acted upon, as in “The proposal was written by me.” Again, because it is shorter, more direct, and more emphatic, the active voice is generally preferable to the passive.

 

But if you stop there, you’ll miss many opportunities to make your writing livelier and more emphatic. You also will be more likely to come across as stilted and formalistic rather than personal and approachable.

 

For example, it is my recommendation that you avoid passive-sounding constructions. I recommend you avoid passive-sounding constructions.

 

Clearly, the latter version of the preceding sentence is more emphatic and natural-sounding than the former, but the former – “It is my recommendation that you avoid passive-sounding constructions” – is passive-sounding, not passive. If it were written in the passive voice, where the subject receives the action, the sentence would read, “A recommendation was made by me that you avoid passive-sounding constructions.”

 

Generally, both passive and passive-sounding constructions should be revised to more active constructions. Here’s how to recognize both types of passive constructions.

 

First some definitions. Verbs come in two varieties: transitive and intransitive. Transitive verbs convey action; intransitive verbs merely link.

 

For example, in “I painted my boat blue,” painted conveys an action. In “The boat is blue,” is merely links the subject of the sentence to its complement. Likewise, compare, “You make me happy” and “I am happy.” The first verb is transitive (and active). The second is intransitive (and passive-sounding).

 

To have the active or the passive voice, you must have a transitive or action verb, as in “I painted my boat blue,” which is active, or “The boat was painted blue,” which is passive.

 

But keep looking. Often, intransitive constructions, such as “It is my suggestion that we proceed,” should be changed to active constructions, such as “I suggest we proceed.”

 

Now see if you can tell the difference. Which of the following sentences is active, which is passive, and which is intransitive?

 

“I was planning an on-site writing seminar with a client.”

 

“The active voice is more emphatic than the passive.”

 

“Often, intransitive constructions should be changed to active constructions.”

 

The sentences are active, intransitive, and passive. Now, do you think the second and third sentences should be changed to the active voice?

 

It is my opinion that they should not. (Note both the intransitive verb and the passive voice in the preceding sentence.)  I think not. (Note the active verb.) Active constructions are generally, but not always, preferable to passive constructions.

 

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Your Guides to Excellent Writing

The active voice is usually, but not always, the better choice

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere
 

Which is better: the active voice or the passive voice?

 

Compare “I let go of the Cessna’s strut and prayed my chute would open” with “The Cessna’s strut was let go of and a prayer that my chute would open was said by me.”

 

You may be thinking as long as my chute opens, who cares?

 

Point taken, but in those examples the active voice, in which the subject of the sentence performs the action, is clearly better than the passive voice, in which the subject receives the action.

 

Compare “Over the holidays three dozen cookies were eaten and five books were read by me” with “Over the holidays I ate three dozen cookies and read five books.” Again, the active voice is more direct, concise, and emphatic.

 

The passive voice, however, is sometimes better for emphasis, diplomacy, and flow.

 

1. Emphasis
 

Use the passive voice to emphasize the receiver rather than the performer of the action. Compare “I altered the wording to illustrate a point” with “The wording was altered to illustrate a point.”

 

The active voice is more emphatic, but if the emphasis is on the act of altering the wording, the passive voice is better.

 

2. Diplomacy
 

Use the passive voice to avoid assigning blame. Compare “You mismanaged my investments” with “My investments were mismanaged.”

 

Here the active voice sounds abrupt and accusatory, and the passive voice sounds diplomatic. When the actor (“by you”) is omitted, as it is here, the passive voice is called the “diplomatic” or “truncated passive.”

 

3. Flow
 

Use the passive voice to increase coherence by linking one sentence to the next. Compare “The wail of a loon awakened me. Anyone who has canoed the Boundary Waters wilderness of northern Minnesota has heard that haunting sound” with “I was awakened by the wail of a loon, a haunting sound heard by anyone who has canoed the Boundary Waters wilderness of northern Minnesota.”

 

Note the two references to the bird’s sound: wail of a loon and haunting sound. In the active sentences, they come far apart, at the beginning of the first sentence and the end of the second. In the passive clauses, the references are juxtaposed for a more coherent sequence, at the end of the first sentence and at the beginning of the trailing element.

 

Despite these examples, the active voice generally is better. For practice moving between the active and passive voice, change the passive to the active voice in these sentences:

 

“The journey over the river and through the wood was made by us to Grandfather’s house. The way is known and the sleigh is carried by the horse through the white and drifted snow.”

 

You know how Lydia Maria Child wrote the lyrics, but here they are anyway. (Don’t let the inversion in the first sentence below fool you; although technically the verb is intransitive, it’s still active sounding.)

 

“Over the river and through the wood to Grandfather’s house we go. The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh through the white and drifted snow.

 

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