Many writers drift into the passive voice. When this happens, teachers and other writing professionals often say, ‘You’re writing in the passive voice. Use an active voice instead. It will make your writing more interesting.’
Most likely they offered the same explanation: With the active voice, the subject undertakes the action. With the passive voice, the subject is being acted upon, (or words to that effect).
No one seems able to describe it in any other terms, which leads many writers surrounded by open books trying to understand this conundrum. It’s actually surprising how many books use this same phrasing.
Writers want a simple way to detect when they have moved from active to passive. So, for those writers who have trouble with the concept, here are a few hints to let you know when you have slipped into the passive voice.
Look for the word ‘by’. Here is an example of passive voice:
The trespasser was chased by a bull yesterday.
The bull is actually the subject and it’s the one carrying out the action. A simple rewrite changes the above example into the active voice:
A bull chased the trespasser yesterday.
Of course there are also passive sentences that don’t contain the word ‘by’. (You didn’t think it was going to be that easy, did you?)
Have a look at this example of a passive sentence:
The matter will be looked into further and a solution will be found.
Notice that there is ambiguity with the above example. Who is looking into the problem? A sentence that is unclear who is the subject can indicate it’s written in the passive voice. Don’t be afraid to reword the sentence to transform it into the active voice, as in this example:
The mailroom personnel will check into the problem and rectify it immediately.
Now we have a clear subject – the mailroom personnel.
Not all sentences have a subject, such as fragments.
Why is the active voice more desirable than passive?
Active voice can make a sentence more exciting by speeding up the pace, and it’s especially useful when the writer wants the reader to feel anxiety or suspense. Creative writers (fiction and non-fiction) use the active voice for these reasons.
Does that mean we shouldn’t use passive voice at all?
The passive voice does have its place. It can help readers to catch their breath after an exciting, fast-paced section.
It’s also extremely useful in corporate writing and to soften the effects of blame on an individual or group, as in the following example:
The letter failed to be sent on time by the mailroom personnel.
(Did you notice the example had the word ‘by’ in it?) The example clearly blames a particular group, but is softened with the use of the passive voice. (Was the previous sentence written in passive or active voice?)
This next sentence is written in active voice and delivers a more brutal attack:
The mailroom personnel didn’t send the letter on time.
Hopefully these hints will help alert you to the passive voice and clear up the confusion about whether the subject undertakes the action or if it’s being acted upon.
As always, happy writing!