We learn the building blocks of language and the rules of grammar at a young age, but it’s generally many years before we have to use such tools in a high-stakes scenario — such as writing professional emails, sending cover letters for job applications, or perhaps penning an emotional note. As such, it never hurts to do a brief refresher on the basics. Here, we’re looking at active versus passive voice.
Passive and Active Voice
At its most basic, active voice implies that the subject of the sentence is performing an action. Passive voice implies that an action is being done to the subject, which often makes for a longer, clunkier, and more unclear sentence. Take the following example, written in the active voice:
I want a cup of coffee.
This is simple, direct, and leaves no question as to the meaning. Now let’s flip things around and make it passive:
A cup of coffee is wanted by me.
Here, we repositioned the target of the action (“a cup of coffee”) as the focus of the sentence, and the subject (“I/me”) is acted upon by the verb (“want”). You’ll notice that, as is always the case with passive voice, it includes a conjugated version of the verb “to be,” plus the past participle of the verb defining the action of the sentence (“is wanted”). The result is a clunky, unnecessarily long sentence.
You might remember teachers imploring you to avoid the passive voice at all costs, because, in general, it does result in weaker writing. The more concise and direct your sentences are, the easier it will be to communicate your point. Active voice is the preferred style for most professional communications. That said, there are certain instances in which the passive voice is preferable.
Consider journalism. Opinion writers primarily use the active voice because they are sure of their positions and want to convince you to side with them. On the other hand, news anchors and reporters may employ passive voice more frequently to emphasize the action that occurred rather than the individual or group who committed the action, because they may not know the perpetrator yet, or that person hasn’t yet been convicted of the offense.
You’ll also notice this in scientific or historical writings: The intent is to emphasize the event, not the person performing the action. Consider the following sentence: “President Biden was inaugurated.” In this instance, it doesn’t necessarily matter who inaugurated the President, just that he was inaugurated; historical precedent lets us know it was the chief justice of the United States who performed the action. If, on the other hand, Beyoncé inaugurated the President, it would be unprecedented and newsworthy for us to know who performed the action: “Beyonce inaugurated President Biden.” The difference between using passive and active voice in these examples lends nuance to the meaning.
Avoiding the Passive Voice
Now you know the basics of how to use active and passive voice, but unless you’re a news anchor, scientist, or historian, you’re probably going to want to stick to the active voice. It will make your writing stronger and more persuasive.
To start eliminating the passive voice from your writing, try reading things out loud. It makes it much easier to spot clunkiness and mistakes. Look out for the verb “to be” (in the forms “is,” “am,” “are”), as the passive voice always pairs with the verb “to be.” Go through each sentence and identify who or what is performing the action, and then rewrite the sentence to make it or them the subject.
Soon enough, you’ll be catching the passive voice far before the editing process. Happy (active) writing.
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