Active vs. Passive Voice:
Keep Your Writing Lively and Readable
In active voice, the subject of the sentence clearly is the doer of the action. In passive voice, the doer of the action is identified in an indirect way.
active: I am holding the baby.
passive: The baby is being held by me.
active: Rob tromped on the gas as his car sped away.
passive: The gas was tromped on by Rob as his car sped away.
active: Jim is considering what action to take.
passive: What action to take is being considered by Jim.
Passive voice isn’t always wrong. It’s used appropriately in scientific writing, which should sound objective and where the action is more important than who does it, and in crime reports, when authorities don’t know the doer.
- The subjects of the study were interviewed by each interviewer.
- The results have been replicated by a new group of researchers.
Crime report passive:
- The branch bank was robbed sometime between 3 and 4:40 a.m.
- The woman was stabbed as she approached her car.
Note the presence of some form of the verb to be in all passive examples (is, am, are, was, were, have/has been): … baby is being held … gas pedal was tromped on … action is being considered … subjects were interviewed by … results have been replicated … branch bank was robbed … woman was stabbed …
Government documents can get wordy, and passive voice sometimes is the culprit.
passive: The following information must be included in the application for it to be considered complete.
active: You must include the following information in your application.
passive: Regulations have been proposed by the EPA.
active: The EPA has proposed regulations.
- Killer Tip: Convert the twisted, dull-sounding construction of passive voice to active by using a subject-verb-object sequence and avoiding forms
of the verb to be.
Writing and grammar expert Kathleen Watson, fondly known as The Ruthless Editor, has nearly three decades of experience in both corporate and academic worlds. She has taught business people how to fine-tune their communication style, college students how to strengthen their writing, and Ph.D. candidates how to polish their dissertations. Kathy also has experience as a fiction and nonfiction book copy editor, working with a mix of new and experienced authors.
In addition to writing her own book on grammar, she blogs at RuthlessEditor.com, sharing weekly tips on how to write to get the job you want, earn the promotion you’ve worked hard for, and artfully explain your best ideas.