Education, Random Writing Rants, Written Communication

Active vs. passive voice: Why you should care

Wheeeee!
Wheeeee! (Photo credit: Erika Hall)

Do you use active language in your writing? Do your teachers occasionally tell you that your writing is too passive? Are you confused about what this means? Don’t worry, you’re not alone.

One of my students told me last semester that her mom is an English teacher, and that she doesn’t even bother trying to teach the difference between active and passive voice to her students anymore because none of them ever “get it.” What a shame.

I wonder sometimes why passive voice is such an easy trap to fall into. After all, active sentences are typically simpler than passive sentences and require fewer words. Wouldn’t you think the brain would take the path of least resistance and lead the writer to write more active sentences? Apparently not.

As a college instructor, I see that most of my students have never learned this essential concept. Using strong, active language is like inserting subliminal messages into your writing. If you were to provide a reader with two writing samples, identical to one another in every way except that one is written in active voice and the other in passive, the average reader would choose the active passage as the more credible of the two, often without knowing why. This can be extremely important in a variety of writing situations.

Consider this: You and another student are vying for a $10,000 scholarship. The two of you have been classmates (and rivals) since preschool. Your course work and job histories are identical. You both include the exact same content in your application essays. However, one of you uses strong, active language in your writing, while the other is prone to using weak, passive language. The decision-maker who is reading your essays doesn’t consciously understand the difference between active and passive voice, but subconsciously knows that one of these essays is better than the other. Who do you think will win the scholarship?

It’s not just scholarship applications that are affected by passive language. How do you think your writing impacts your ability to get a job when the potential employer considers your cover letter when determining whether to call you for a job interview? How likely are you to obtain funding for a new business venture when your entire business plan is written in passive voice? The bottom line is, passive voice decreases your credibility whether the reader recognizes it or not.

Active vs. passive voice is a difficult concept to grasp, one which I myself only learned a few years ago. Yet, this is an important concept that every writer (and we’re ALL writers, whether we like it or not,) should learn. It’s one of those things you don’t notice you’re doing until you finally “get it.” And then, you can’t help but notice it every time you see it.

So, how do you write an active sentence? Think back to grade school when you first began to read. Remember when you first learned about sentence construction? Back then, you probably wrote simple sentences, each containing a subject first and then a verb. The subject is the doer of the action. Get back to those basic lessons and incorporate them into your writing today. Look at your sentences, find the verb, and ask yourself if the subject of the sentence is actively “doing” the verb’s action or if the subject is having something done to him or her.

The most valuable example I have ever seen of active voice vs. passive voice is a bit gauche, but is highly effective:

-You will be killed.

-I will kill you.

Which of these two sentences is more effective? If you chose the second, you are correct. Why? Because the subject comes first, and the subject is doing an action. In the first sentence, you have a subject that is passively allowing something to happen to it. And who “allows” themselves to be killed?

How many passive sentences can you find in this blog post? What tricks do you use to avoid passive language in your own writing? Please share your ideas in the comments below.

~Mandy Webster

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6 thoughts on “Active vs. passive voice: Why you should care”

  1. I appreciate the two links to my notes and the exercise on active versus passive voice. Thank you. I shall certainly approve the links

    On a slightly different matter, I do not know whether you know of ePrime. I have written in ePrime for many years. All my notes on my web site fall into that category. It simply means that you not use the verb “to be”. Thus you “cannot” write – “I do not like X.” You write – ” I class X as bad.”
    In some cases it makes for a clumsy sentence. In other case it improves a sentence. It certainly makes you use the active voice.

  2. Thank you for your two links to my work. I shall certainly approve.

    On a related topic, do you know of ePrime. This method means that you do not use the verb “to be”. You cannot write – “I like X”. You write – “I class X as bad.”

    Sometimes it makes for a clumsy sentence. At other times it improves the sentence. It certainly makes you write in the active voice.

    1. As a reader, I love passive voice; ergo, I won’t be deterred by any taste dictatorship or censorship from deploying it massively and shamelessly.

      1. It is important to understand your audience and your genre. There is a time and place for everything, even passive writing. For example, when breaking bad news in a letter, you might choose to use passive language to soften the blow. There is a huge difference between using passive voice for a purpose and using it because that’s all you know.

        Thanks for stopping by!

  3. I could not care any less what could be considered more acceptable by vulgar and average readers, but I remain only concerned with a selected Platonic elite.

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