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Is the active voice always best?
Author : Catie Holdridge
Posted : 11 / 08 / 16
The active voice gets a hero’s welcome from most writing guides, which tend to demonise the passive voice as the root of all grammatical evil.
Yet the passive voice does have its defenders, who accuse the first group of oversimplifying matters.
Generally, the active voice is the way to go. But Team Passive do have a point. In some cases, the passive voice is actually the best choice.
Let’s look at three of them.
You hear this kind of passive a lot in news reporting. When a news story breaks, the information about who is behind the actions might not yet be known – and the target of the action might well be more critical to the headline anyway. For example:
The President has been shot in Texas …
The fugitive is believed to be hiding in nearby woods …
As linguist Geoffrey Pullum points out, there’s nothing wrong with a reporter who’s covering a forest fire stating: ‘Helicopters were flown in to put out the flames…’. We really don’t need to know the pilot’s name.
And it can be the same with what you write at work sometimes: the ‘who’ isn’t actually relevant or could even be a distraction.
For example, if you were describing a property for sale, you might say:
The conservatory was added to the house in 2004.
That would be fine. The prospective buyers don’t really need to know that
Bob’s Conservatories of Hull added the conservatory to the house in 2004.
Have a look at these other examples (with the passive parts in bold). Can you see why it might not be necessary to try to rewrite them with the doer stated first?
When the patient was originally diagnosed, fewer treatment options were available. [Do we need to know the doctor’s name, or is our focus rightly on the patient?]
Since we’ve been in charge of their PR, the client has been photographed more than ever. [We can safely assume this was done by photographers.]
The laptops will arrive on Monday, pre-installed with all the software you need. [We might be grateful to the technician who installed the software, but we don’t really need an introduction.]
Using the passive voice means you can remove the doer of the action. While this can sometimes be ethically questionable (as in the classic evasive statement ‘Mistakes were made’), sometimes you can use this tactic instead to be diplomatic.
For example, if you had to reply to a customer or client (or even a supervisor) who had made a mistake, you wouldn’t want to highlight this fact by pointing the finger – which writing in the active voice would do:
You filled in the form incorrectly.
If you re-wrote this in the passive voice, you can be much more tactful, as you can take out the doer (them) altogether:
The form was filled in incorrectly.
We might also soften bad news by making it more indirect using the passive. For example,
Unfortunately, your proposal wasn’t approved
could be a more gentle approach than directly stating who it was that said no.
Writing that flows is writing that gets your message across best.
A key part of creating writing that flows is linking one sentence to another. You can do this by starting a sentence with information that you finished the previous sentence with, so like links to like.
It’s also best to introduce new information at the end of the sentence. This is because, as readers, we process information most effectively when we start with a foundation of something familiar, and only then add something new to that. The alternative is harder work: if you encounter a new and potentially complex bit of information at the beginning, you have to hold that in your mind until you reach the end of the sentence before you can comprehend the full meaning.
Have a look at these sentences:
We can pay your rebate directly into your bank account.
Your rebate can be paid directly into your bank account.
These two sentences present the same information in two different ways – although the second one, the passive version, is missing the doer. So if we went by the general rule of favouring the active, we might say that the first option is better.
But what if we were preceding that with this sentence?
If you have paid too much tax in the financial year, you will be entitled to a rebate of the overpaid amount.
If we follow that sentence with the active ‘We can pay your rebate …’, the customer reading the letter might be momentarily thrown by the sudden appearance of this ‘we’. Have a look:
If you have paid too much tax in the financial year, you will be entitled to a rebate of the overpaid amount. We can pay your rebate directly into your bank account.
Whereas, if we use the passive version, we begin where we left off – with the rebate:
If you have paid too much tax in the financial year, you will be entitled to a rebate of the overpaid amount. Your rebate can be paid directly into your bank account.
This makes for a smoother transition between sentences, and a smoother logistical journey for your reader.
Although favouring the active in your writing is a good general rule, you don’t need to worry about banishing the passive from your writing altogether. Not only would doing so be nearly impossible (or at least extremely time-consuming), it also isn’t necessary. It’s not even advisable: it won’t make your writing better. As we’ve seen, there can be very good reasons to use the passive sometimes.
The key is to know why you’re doing so and make conscious choices. And now you’re aware of what kind of situations benefit from the passive voice, you’ll be able to make informed choices in your own writing.
This is an extract from a lesson in our online-training programme Emphasis 360, which improves your writing in practical, bite-sized weekly lessons. The full version of this lesson includes questions you can ask yourself to decide when to choose the passive voice. You can find out more about Emphasis 360 and preview a full lesson for free here.
Image credit: ra2studio / Shutterstock
Catie joined Emphasis with an English literature and creative writing degree and a keen interest in what makes language work. Having researched and written dozens of articles for the Emphasis blog, she now knows more about the intricacies of effective professional writing than she ever thought possible.
She produced and co-wrote our online training programme, The Complete Business Writer, and these days oversees all the Emphasis marketing efforts. And she keeps office repartee at a suitably literary level.
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