Written by David Hatz, Retired Teacher and Coach

 

         Let’s start the day with a quick survey. Read the following pairs of sentences, and then
determine which one you prefer in each set. Consider which is clearer, and easier to read.


         1. She slammed on the brakes as the car sped downhill.
         2. The brakes were slammed on by her as the car sped downhill.


         1. More than one-third of the students failed the exam.
         2. The exam was failed by more than one-third of the students.

 

         1. The sound engineers will remix the soundtrack.
         2. The soundtrack will be remixed by the sound engineers.


         I’m confident that you preferred the first sentence in each case. I certainly hope so because
all three sentences are written in active voice, as opposed to passive voice – in which all three
of the second sentences were written.
         Since some of you may not be clear on the difference between active and passive voice,
let’s do a quick review.
         Writing in active voice is critical to becoming a good writer because it follows a clear subject
+ verb + object construct that is easy to read and can make your writing more impactful. Passive
voice, on the other hand, can make for unclear, roundabout, and more wordy sentences.
         Looking back at the sample sentences, we see that in his instance the No. 1 sentences
follow the subject+verb+object construct:
         She (subject) slammed (verb) on the brakes (object) as the car sped downhill.
         Students (subject) failed (verb) the exam (object).
         Engineers (subject) will remix (verb) the soundtrack (object).


         In other words, active voice describes a sentence where the subject performs the action(s)
of the verb(s). Conversely, in passive voice the subject is acted upon by the verb. Again, using
the sentences above:
         The brakes (object) were slammed (verb) by her (subject) as the car sped downhill.
         The exam (object) was failed (verb) by more than one-third of the students (subject).
         The soundtrack (object) will be remixed (verb) by the sound engineers (subject).

         Before we examine more examples, let’s stress the importance of why writers should use
active voice, and, with rare exceptions, avoid passive voice wherever possible.
         Active voice immediately identifies both the action and who or what is performing the
action, adding clarity and precision to your words.
         For example,
Passive voice: The dog was walked my Maria.
Active voice: Maria walked the dog.
         The second example doesn’t mince words and gets straight to the point.

         Remember, active voice adds impact to your writing, and makes It sound as if you are
observing the action. Thus, active voice more easily engages readers and keeps them
interested, while passive voice makes it appear as if people or objects are waiting for things to
happen.
         Here four tips that will help you write in active voice and keep your sentences clear and
engaging:
         1. Put the subject first so it’s clear who is performing the action;
         2. Avoid/limit the passive verb “to be.” Use a search engine if you need a list of “to be”
         verbs;
         3. When possible, swap -ing ending words of -ed. Gerunds and present participles (words
         ending in -ing) tend to be passive than verbs ending in -ed;
         4. Go easy on the adverbs. They may make your writing more descriptive, but too many
         adverbs and intensifiers bog down good writing. Better to select rhetorically accurate
         verbs, which eliminate the need for adverbs.
         Here are a few examples of how descriptive verbs make adverbs unnecessary:
                 Adverb Descriptor                                                  Better Verb
                 “ran quickly”                                                            Dashed
                 “listened secretly”                                                  Eavesdropped
                 “looked menacingly”                                              Glared
                 “loved dearly or greatly”                                        Adored
                 “cried uncontrollably”                                            Sobbed or Wept

 

         If you are still not certain or convinced that active voice is preferable to passive voice, here
are some more examples:

                 Active Voice                                                             Passive Voice

Beautiful giraffes roam the savannah.                    The savannah is roamed by beautiful giraffes.

We are going to watch a movie tonight.                  A movie is going to be watched by us tonight.

The crew paved the entire stretch of highway.      The entire stretch of highway was paved by the crew.

Thousands of tourists visit the Grand                     The Grand Canyon is visited by thousands of tourists every year.                                                                     Canyon every year.

 

 

Exceptions to the Rule

 

         All that said, there are times when passive voice is not only acceptable but may be
preferred. You might want to use it in the following situations:

         1. The actor is unknown:
         The cave paintings of Lascaux were made in the Upper Old Stone Age. (We don’t know
         who made them.)
         2. The actor is irrelevant:
         An experimental solar power plant will be built in the Australian desert. (We are not
         interested in who is building it.)
         3. You want to be vague about who is responsible:
         Mistakes were made. (Common in bureaucratic writing.)
         4. You are talking about a general truth:
         Rules are made to be broken. (By whomever, whenever.)
         5. You want to emphasize the person or thing acted on. For example, it may be your main
         topic:
         Insulin was first discovered in 1921 by researchers at the University of Toronto. It is still
         the only treatment available for diabetes.
         6. You are writing in a scientific genre that traditionally relies on passive voice. Passive
         voice is often preferred in lab reports and scientific research papers, most notably in the
         Materials and Methods section:

         The sodium hydroxide was dissolved in water. This solution was then titrated with
         hydrochloric acid.


The Lighter Side


         And if you’re still reading, here are a few more bloopers culled from church bulletins and
announcements that once again remind us that everybody needs an editor:


         “The sermon this morning: ‘Jesus Walks on the Water.’ The sermon tonight: ‘Searching for
Jesus.’ ”


         “The Rector will preach his farewell message, after which the choir will sing “Break Forth into
Joy.”


         “The ladies of the Church have cast off clothing of every kind. They may be seen in the
basement on Friday afternoon.”


         Until next time, write on!

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