What is the active voice?
Sentences that start with the person or thing that performs an action are active in voice. The message is clear. The reader knows who is doing what and it is clear who takes responsibility for the action. In the active voice the subject does the action. The sentence structure comprises subject, object and verb:
The girl jumps over the dog.
The man eats dinner.
The proofreader finds mechanical errors.
What is the passive voice?
The passive voice is not as clear or direct. It reverses the subject and action so that the subject is acted upon. The object in an active sentence becomes the subject in a passive sentence. Sentences that employ the passive voice often contain the word ‘by’ which can make them easier to identify. However, sentences using passive voice can obscure clarity about who is responsible for what. If we change the previous examples to passive voice, they would be written like this:
The dog was jumped over by the girl.
The dinner was eaten by the man.
Mechanical errors are found by a proofreader.
When do I use the active or passive voice?
Current conventions in most writing practices prefer the use of the active voice. The reason for this is to ensure that readers can understand what is written quickly and easily. Readers will know who is responsible for what. It also ensures that readers do not need to read the same material several times to make sense of it. This is important in business communications, formal documents and even academic work. As a general rule of thumb, it is advisable to use the active voice more frequently than the passive voice in most forms of writing.
However, there are times when the passive voice is preferred. When the object of a sentence needs the focus, the passive voice can be more effective. Passive voice can also be more effective when it is neither clear nor important who performed the action. Passive voice for the sake of wordiness or sounding fancy should be avoided. Have a look at these examples:
Ten thousand lives were lost in the flood. In this sentence the emphasis is on loss of life rather than the flood.
The books were covered in brown paper and plastic. We do not know who covered the books or it might not be important to know who covered the books in this context.
What is the effect or impact of the active and passive voice on the audience/readers?
As stated above, writing that uses the active voice conveys a message that is clear so that readers can understand what is written with ease. The active voice also notes who is responsible for specific actions. Readers can make sense of communication that is written in the active voice as it is logical, accurate and, therefore, effective.
Passive writing can confuse readers. This occurs when it is not clear who is responsible for what or if a reader is not sure what the focus of the communication is. Readers may have to reread material a few times if passive voice has been used or if important information is lost in wordiness or poorly structured sentences.
In summary, ask these questions to determine if you want to use the active or passive voice in your communication:
- Who or what performs the action? If this is clear, start your sentence with that subject and use the active voice. If it is unclear, passive voice might be preferable.
- What is the focus of the sentence? Is it the subject performing the action or the object being acted upon?
- How clear is the message? Always choose the active voice in your communication if your audience needs to understand what you’ve written, without aggravation and in optimal time.