Writing Advice: Using the Active and the Passive Voice

One of the many categories in language to help define verbs is called the voice of the verb. Voice describes the relationship of the subject of the sentence to the main verb. In English grammar, there are two main verb categories: 

Active Voice means that the subject of the sentence is the main doer of the verb:

Alfred threw the stone.

Passive Voice means that the subject of the sentence is the recipient or target ofthe verb:

The stone wasthrown by Alfred.

Both of these examples express the same event; but by shifting the voice and the subject, they place emphasis on different elements of the event.

How Should they be used?

It is typically more common and straightforward to frame descriptions of actions in the active voice; it is the default and tends to be the clearest. It is common enough that some teachers and writers (not to mention word processing software, like the one I’m using to type this very article) insist that one should never use the passive voice when the active voice can be used instead. This attitude is a gross oversimplification, and if the passive voice is never used it will result in writing that is stale, repetitive, and lacking in nuance. Does anyone think that the famous opening line from Shakespeare’sRichard III: 

Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this Sun of York.

Would be better if it were re-written in the active voice?

Now this Sun of York has made the winter of our discontent glorious summer.

Unfortunately, it has become something of a dogma in modern writing that active voiceis always preferable to passive voice. To counteract this simplistic point of view, let’s examine some places where passive voice is superior to the active.

Sometimes the action is more important than the person doing it.

Passive voicede-emphasizes the person performing the action, since that actor is not the subject of the sentence like in an active construction.

He was promoted to a job he didn’t want. 

Exactly who promoted the subject is mostly irrelevant; the passive voice puts the emphasis on the unwanted promotion itself, which is what the sentence is really getting at.

Sometimes the recipient of an action is more important than the actor.

Just as passive voice can be used to emphasize the action itself over its doer, so it can also emphasize the person or thing affected by the action.

My leg was broken by a falling branch.

The important thing in this sentence is the leg, not the branch; therefore placing the leg as the subject lends itself to passive construction.

You don’t know who the actor is, or you want to disguise the actor’s identity.

Sometimes more diplomatic writing requires that you not assign responsibility for asomething; sometimes you simply don’t know who performed an action.In both cases, passive voice is useful:

My bike has been stolen. 

Since you don’t know the identity of the thief, a passive construction is the most concise.

Mistakes were made.

The passive voice here allows you to avoid assigning blame for a mistake (note that you should not always try to avoid assigning responsibility, but when that’s what you intend to do, passive voice is your friend!)

Variety

Those who push for always using passive voice usually do so for the sake of clarity and uniformity in syntax. And in certain kinds of writing, those qualities are paramount: most formal writing in the business world prioritizes clarity and simplicity with good reason. But other kinds of writing each demand their own style: a passage in fiction mightprize ambiguity rather than clarity. A piece of scientific writing might wish to emphasize a process in a general, de-personalized way. And in any writing, using nothing but active-voice constructions will make the writing flat, repetitive, and lifeless; the contrast created by the sudden use of a strong passive construction can bring your writing to life, while remaining just as informative and clear. As in all things, active and passive voice should both be used in the right contexts.

Sean

Super Tutor

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