Reducing the amount of passive voice in your writing will improve the impact of your work.
Voice, as used here, voice is the quality of a verb that indicates whether the subject of the sentence acts or is acted upon. The subject can be a person, place, thing, or even an idea.
Active voice refers to a type of sentence or clause with an action verb, in which the subject acts, performs, or causes the action indicated by the verb. Examples:
Every day, my dog chews up my mail.
The speaker thanked the audience.
The tenor sang a song from a well-known Broadway show.
Passive voice refers to a type of sentence or clause in which the subject is the (passive) receiver of the action indicated by the verb. The subject does not perform the action. Instead, the subject is acted upon. Such sentences deemphasize the importance of the performer of the action.
Passive-voice sentences hide the “who”, changing the normal doer-action-receiver flow. This can make your text “muddy”, and it can interfere with direct and powerful writing. You may end up making the reader work harder to understand your intended meaning. Examples:
Every day, my mail is chewed up (by my dog).
The audience was thanked (by the speaker).
A song from a well-known Broadway show was sung (by the tenor).
Passive sentences may or may not contain an agent—”who or what causes the action”. The agent usually comes at the end of the sentence, after the word “by”. The agents in the above sentence are shown in parentheses.
In the first sentence, for example, my mail is the subject of the passive verb is chewed up, and my dog is the agent. The subject in this sentence is not the one doing the action of the verb.
Here’s a sample sentence with no agent:
This paper was written last year.
Analysis: Who wrote the paper? We don’t know, because there’s no agent. This tends to be the most common form of passive-voice sentences—and it’s not very effective.
Passive voice is okay when used in moderation. Maybe you’re using it to make a sentence sound more sophisticated or elaborate, or maybe it softens an unpleasant thought. However, passive-voice sentences are often wordier and can sound weak. On the other hand, active-voice sentences are more concise, have a more direct tone, and sound stronger. Example.
Original: The error message was created by a computer.
Improved: A computer created the error message.
On the whole, readers generally appreciate active sentences.
Passive-voice sentence structure
The passive voice is often formed by using a form of the verb “to be” (e.g., is, was, were, have/has been, should be, ought to be, can be, will have been) followed by a verb in the past tense or a past participle (e.g., formed). An easy way to check for a passive sentence is to use the “zombies test”. If you can add the phrase “by zombies” after the verb and it still makes grammatical sense, it’s passive voice (e.g., This sentence was written by zombies).
Changing passive-voice sentences into active-voice sentences
Here are some simple steps that you can follow to make your sentence more active.
- Move the subject of a passive sentence into the direct object location of the new active sentence.
- Remove the auxiliary verb form of “to be” from the main verb and change the main verb’s form as needed.
- Remove the object of the preposition “by” in the passive sentence. Example:
Passive sentence: Every day, my mail is chewed up by my dog.
Active sentence: Every day, my dog chews up my mail.
Because it’s more direct, many, if not most, style guides and writers prefer the active voice whenever possible. However, passive voice may be the better choice when a) the performer of an action is unknown or unimportant; b) the writer wishes to emphasize the action of the sentence rather than the doer; or c) the writer wishes to use passive voice for sentence variety.
Your objective should not be to completely eliminate passive-voice sentences. But you should try to reduce using them as much as possible. Converting passive-voice sentences to active voice in your writing makes you think about who is doing the action. This discipline will improve the meaning you’re trying to convey and will improve readability. Bold writers don’t hide behind passive constructions.
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