Passive Voice

In the business world, you hear this phrase a lot: “low-hanging fruit.” This is anything you can do easily, to get a lot of value right away.

If you’re a newbie writer, one of the lowest of the low-hanging fruit is to use active voice instead of passive voice.

For example:

Active Voice (good): Canada invaded Greenland.

Passive Voice (bad): Greenland was invaded by Canada.

Why is active voice better? Two reasons.

First, it’s simpler, more direct, and more powerful. Your sentence follows the natural flow of the language, putting the subject up front, where it belongs. The emphasis is on the action, not the one getting actioned. And it’s shorter. If you’re writing, “shorter” is your friend.

Those are arguments of style. The second reason is more practical.

Passive Voice (even worse): Greenland was invaded.

Now we don’t even know who’s doing the action. Passive voice makes this kind of ambiguity very easy, whereas with active voice, it’s impossible.

You see passive voice a lot in business writing. Sometimes people use it to hide ignorance. If you’re not sure who needs to submit the report, you can write “The report must be submitted.” More often, people write like this out of habit, and thus leave out information they assume the reader will know or figure out.

Either way, the lack of clarity leads to trouble. Often the mere act of writing in active voice forces you to think more deeply about your own topic.

Should you ever use passive voice? Yes, sometimes it’s appropriate. The main thing is to use it as sparingly as possible. Every time you begin to write in passive voice, your internal editor should demand you try the sentence in active, to see how it looks. Eventually, active voice should become your default mode of writing.

Any questions?

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4 responses to “Passive Voice

  1. I agree that writers should be aware of which voice they are using and why, but I disagree that it should be used as sparingly as possible. I’ve seen lots of grammar posts about why the passive voice is bad and I think a more interesting post would instead focus on how to use the passive voice effectively.

    This post provides a nice summary (even if it is technically technical writing):
    http://www.biomedicaleditor.com/passive-voice.html

    • To quote the article you linked: “Choose the active voice whenever possible.” πŸ™‚

      Certainly passive voice has its place, as I was careful to note in my post. And you’re absolutely right that it’s interesting and necessary to talk about what that place is. But not everyone reads as many grammar posts as you do. I wanted to stop the bleeding before cleaning the wound.

      Thanks for the article, it was a good one.

  2. That’s true. Let me restate my opinion or try to communicate it better. I think the role of the passive voice, like it’s title, is often understated and that it deserves more attention, specifically regarding how to use it properly.

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