Why Active (vs. Passive) Voice Is More Readable

www.RuthlessEditor.comDid your English teacher make you rewrite passive-voice sentences, converting them to active voice?

Mine did.

In active voice, the subject of the sentence clearly is the doer of the action.
In passive voice, the doer of the action is identified in an indirect way.

Active voice is more lively and easier to read. It helps prevent wordy, convoluted sentences:

active: I am holding the baby.
passive: The baby is being held by me.

active: Rob tromped on the gas pedal as he sped away.
passive: The gas pedal was tromped on by Rob as he sped away.

Passive voice isn’t always wrong. It’s used appropriately in scientific writing, which should sound objective, and where the action is more important than who performs it:

Scientific passive:
The subjects of the study were interviewed by each of five interviewers.
The results have been replicated by a new group of researchers.

Passive voice also is used in crime reports, because authorities don’t always know the perpetrator — the doer of the illegal act:

Crime report passive:
The branch bank was robbed sometime between 3 and 4:40 a.m.
The woman was stabbed as she approached her car.

Note the use of some form of the verb to be in all passive examples (is, am, are, was, were, have/has been): … baby is being held … gas pedal was tromped on … action is being considered … subjects were interviewed by … results have been replicated … branch bank was robbed … woman was stabbed …

Passive voice is boring; it lacks a sense of action. The verb to be connotes existence, not action.

And passive constructions generally require more words. (See both the baby and gas pedal examples.)

These government-speak passive examples require more words as well:

passive: The following information must be included in the application for it to be considered complete.
active: You must include the following information in your application.

passive: Regulations have been proposed by the EPA.
active: The EPA has proposed regulations.

Consider these two business examples and the word count at the end of each:

passive: The decades-old organization was being led by a new owner. He said it was important to take a step back to develop an updated mission and vision. 27
active: The decades-old organization had a new owner who acknowledged the importance of taking a step back to develop an updated mission and vision. 23

Convert the twisted, dull-sounding construction of passive voice to active voice by using a subject-verb-object sequence and avoiding forms of the verb to be. 

Do you have a strategy to share that helps avoid passive writing?

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Kathy Watson

Kathy Watson has a love/hate relationship with grammar; she loves words and the punctuation that helps them make sense, yet she hates those pesky rules. A self-proclaimed ruthless editor, she prefers standard usage guidelines of The Associated Press Stylebook. Her easy-to-use Grammar for People Who Hate Rules helps people write and speak with authority and confidence. She encourages and welcomes questions and comments. (Email)

2 thoughts on “Why Active (vs. Passive) Voice Is More Readable

  1. AvatarBrenda Felber

    Kathy…I read The Book Designer, Joel Friedlander’s blog, and your marketing/promotion story was highlighted in it today…what an interesting and exciting experience for you. I’m a Wisconsin author who also winters away in Arizona. Good luck on your endeavors and perhaps our paths will cross someday!

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