Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Write in the Active Voice

Good writing is concise. There are many techniques for achieving conciseness, but the most powerful is writing in the active voice. Use the passive voice only when a particular sentence calls for it.

For those of you who need it, here is a review of the active and passive voice:
  • Active Voice: The shopkeeper called the police.
  • Passive Voice: The police were called by the shopkeeper.
  • Passive Voice with agent omitted: The police were called.
In the active voice, the sentence's subject, the shopkeeper, performs the action, calling the police. In the passive voice, the sentence's subject, the police, is acted upon. The person or thing performing the action is introduced by the word by. But usually this agent is omitted so that we do not learn who called the police.

Notice that, in the active voice, the verb called does the job all by itself. But in the passive voice it needs a helper, were. That's one reason why sentences in the active voice are more concise.

Don't get the idea that the passive voice is "wrong." Some sentences call for it. When the agent is unknown or irrelevant, the passive voice is called for. It emphasizes the action. In fact, using the active voice to mention an irrelevant agent just steals emphasis from the action. Then the reader cannot tell what point you are trying to make. For example, in the example above, you could be trying to make one of two points: that the police were called or that it was the shopkeeper who called them. So, if you simply wish to make the point that the police were called, use the passive voice.

Nonetheless, most inexperienced writers use the passive voice far too often. Besides making a sentence wordy and harder for the brain to process, the passive voice can damage your credibility.

For example, if a woman says, "The police have been called," and you know that she must be the one who called them, her statement strikes you as a responsibility dodge. Honest people are upright and state things directly, as in "I called the police." Unfortunately, people often do things in writing that they instinctively avoid in speech. So, because they think it sounds more formal and intelligent, they write in the passive voice, thus unwittingly undermining their credibility. This is a big issue in business writing. In fiction, you can characterize a character as dishonest by writing his or her dialog lines in the passive voice.

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