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Active and Passive Voice

Find out which to choose and when to use

Confusion and misinformation abound when it comes to choosing active or passive voice. What is “voice” after all, and why should one type be preferred over the other?  Read on to clarify how active and passive voice serve specific purposes in sentences, depending on the emphasis, tone and audience for your message.

What is active voice?
In the active voice, the subject of the sentence (underlined) performs the action.
Examples:

  • The manager called a meeting.
  • A new ad campaign boosted profits.

Compared to the passive voice, active voice sentences create a clearer visual picture. There is an “actor” or some other entity that actually does something. Active sentences tend to be less wordy and sound more natural, like ordinary conversation. As it happens, most people talk in the active voice.

When do you use it?
Most of the time. The majority of your sentences should be written in the active voice. Yet the  passive voice, as you will see, serves a valuable purpose. The general rule is to use the active voice unless you have a particular need for the passive voice.  

What is passive voice?
In the passive voice, the subject (underlined) is the receiver rather than the performer of the action. The performer, if named at all, is  revealed in a phrase beginning with the word by at the end of the sentence.

Examples:

  • A meeting was scheduled by the manager.
  • A meeting was scheduled. (Performer is not named.)
  • Profits were boosted by a new ad campaign.

Passive sentences are often wordier and less dynamic because readers envision an action already completed and the performer is relegated to secondary position. The result is that the connection between reader and writer seems remote, formal or impersonal.

How is the passive voice created?
Form passive voice with a verb combination:  the verb to be plus any verb used with the word have (called the past  participle).

To be           Past Participle (with have)

am                    addressed
is                      made
are                   sent
was                  written
were                 brought
be                     assigned
being                told
been                 given

Examples:

  • The letter was  addressed to Mary.
  • New requests will be made tomorrow.
  • Two boxes should have been sent to Joe.
  • All ads are written by our director.

Note that in the passive voice the subject (underlined) receives rather than performs the action. That’s the basic difference between active and passive voice.

When is passive voice preferred?
The passive voice (underlined) helps to frame a sensitive, formal, legal or scientific message, particularly in the following circumstances:

  • The performer is not important or not known: A prompt response is considered crucial.
  • Naming the performer could cause embarrassment: The sales quota was not met last month.
  • The writer wants to be impersonal or vague: A decision must have been made recently.
  • The writer wishes to emphasize the receiver rather than the performer: Alice Smith was honored at our annual meeting.
  • The material is technical or scientific with an emphasis on action: The fluid was heated before the containers were filled.

As you can see, the active voice gives writers the ability to be direct and visual, while the passive voice allows them to be subtler and less transparent in handling information. Use active more than passive, but do use both—as each has distinct value in your messages.

 

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Unless otherwise attributed, all material is written and edited by Susan B. Kline. Copyright © Susan B. Kline 2011. All Rights Reserved. I invite you to reprint material from this website for educational purposes, provided this copyright notice ("Written and edited by Susan B. Kline, © Susan B. Kline [year]. All Rights Reserved.") and a link to sbkline.com is included in the credits.

 

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