How and Why to Use Active Voice

Apr 30, 2022 | Tips & Techniques Emails, Writing Skills

How and Why to Use Active Voice

By Marshall Haley

As writers, we hope to keep readers’ attention long enough to convey our message, right?  Well, there’s a simple tool to do that. It’s called active voice.

Active voice uses action verbs to engage readers’ interest and move them through the text.  Writers of quality magazine articles and books use mostly active verbs.

Passive voice, on the other hand, tends to put readers’ minds to sleep and make them lose interest in the writing. 

As noted, active voice involves using action verbs, while passive voice uses various forms of “to be” verbs, such as “is,” “was” and “been.”

From Merriam-Webster:

The active voice asserts that the person or thing represented by the grammatical subject performs the action represented by the verb.

The passive voice makes the subject the person or thing acted on or affected by the action represented by the verb.

Active voice: Jerry knocked over the lamp.

Passive voice: The lamp was knocked over by Jerry.

Both sentences describe the same action taking place—Jerry making contact with a lamp and causing it to fall over—with the first sentence making Jerry the subject and the second making the lamp the subject.

The passive voice is often distinguished by its use of a linking verb form (e.g., was, had been) followed by another verb in its past participle form (e.g., “I have been given an opportunity”).

That example’s passive voice turns the actual subject, “Jerry,” into not only the object of the passive verb but also into the object of the preposition “by”—no longer a subject.

In earlier decades of American schooling, teachers stressed the importance of using active verbs and avoiding passive verbs.  In recent decades, classical grammar practice has given way to the concept that “conversational” writing more effectively ‘speaks’ to readers. 

Unfortunately, our modern lack of emphasis on teaching correct grammar has produced a society that uses a lot of passive and often vague speech instead of directly declaring intentions or actions.

For example, how often do we hear someone say something like, “We are going to talk about changing our policies” or “We are going to play a game of charades?”  Well, where do they have to “go” before they “talk” or “play a game”?  They will do the action right there—they don’t need to “go” anywhere.  And will they do it at some vague future time or right now?

Such rhetoric also serves to confuse non-native English speakers trying to learn English, who know “go” as an action verb, but might not understand such use of “going” as a precedent to action.

Using active voice to change these sentences allows us to make a more direct statement: “We will now talk about changing our policies” and “We will now play charades.”

Journalism courses hammer the importance of active voice until students surrender and comply.  Newspapers have a very practical reason for that:  they make money by optimizing advertising space—not by selling their papers—and passive voice often requires extra words to prop up the passive verb.  That increases text space and reduces advertising space—an unforgivable sin in newspaper writing!

As a fun exercise, review this document and count the number of passive verbs used by the author.

2 Comments

  1. anne

    Thank you Marshall,
    I didn’t have time to go through and count the passive and active verbs.

    Reply
    • Marshall Haley

      Sigh … your loss, Anne … :-/

      Reply

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