Posted by: WITP | 12 November 2011

Active Voice For Stronger Writing

With thanks to Tony for this advice on active versus passive voice.  (And apologies for the delay in getting it posted up here…!)


Writing that describes an action is in either the active voice or the passive voice.

In the active voice, the subject performs the action. Here is an example of the active voice:

I threw the ball.

In the passive voice, the action IS performed BY the subject. The passive voice always includes “is,” “was,” “were,” “are,” or some other form of the verb “to be.”

Here is an example of the passive voice:

The ball was thrown by me.

The active voice is usually a better choice. It makes your writing more immediate and dynamic.

Sometimes it is easy to make the passive voice active:

Passive: I went to the store and I was completely ignored by the clerk.

Active: I went to the store and the clerk completely ignored me.

Sometimes, converting to the active voice is more difficult:

Passive: My car was broken into.

To make this sentence active, I will have to say who broke into my car.

But I don’t know who it was. Here is one solution:

Active: Someone broke into my car.

The active voice is not always best.

Sometimes the action is important and the performer of the action is not.

For example, consider a news report where a celebrity has been found dead:

Johnny Diamond was found dead in his home on Tuesday night.

Most readers don’t care who exactly found the body.

Here is another version in the active voice:

George Wilson, a local plumber, found Johnny Diamond dead in Diamond’s home on Tuesday night.

The first example, although it is in the passive voice, is much more effective and gets to the point.

Use the passive voice when you want to de-emphasize the person responsible for the action:

Mistakes were made.

Use the passive voice when the source of the action is unknown, unimportant, or difficult to describe:

These shoes were made in China.

There is no point at all in saying, “Some people in a factory somewhere in China made these shoes.”

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