With linguistic quirks and ambiguities galore, the English language can trip up even the most knowledgeable native speakers. Add writing to the mix, and… well, let’s just say, we’ve all read a poorly written blog post or press release in our day. One common error that people make when writing is using passive instead of active voice. But what exactly is active voice? And why is it usually preferable to a more passive approach? Let’s take a look.
The Facts on Active Versus Passive Voice
If you’re wondering what the difference is between active and passive voice, your first clue lies in their names themselves. With active voice, the subject (a noun) performs the action expressed by the verb. The direct object receives the action.
Steve pushed Mark into the pool.
In this example, Steve is the subject and Mark is the direct object (i.e., the target of the action).
In passive voice, the direct object gets promoted two pay-grades, and becomes the subject!
Mark was pushed into the pool by Steve.
Here, while Mark is now the subject of the sentence, he’s not really doing anything (except having a bad day if he’s wearing a three-piece suit). Instead, he’s passively sitting back, and receiving the action of being pushed into the pool.
While it’s not technically incorrect to use passive voice in your writing, we would probably all agree that the first sentence is more exciting, lively, and succinct. In other words, it’s active. While the second sentence tells the same story, it’s wordy, weak, and, frankly, a little flabby.
Is Using Passive Voice Wrong?
You probably learned in school that you’re supposed to avoid passive voice at all costs. But it actually isn’t technically wrong. In fact, there are times when it makes sense to opt for passive voice over active voice. For example, when:
- You legitimately want to bring attention to the receiver of the action, instead of the ones performing the action: “The waiter was pushed into the pool.”
- The person performing the action is unknown or unimportant: “A cheeseburger was accidentally dropped into the pool.”
- When you want to intentionally avoid identifying the performer of the action: “The fines for damaging the pool will be collected on Monday.”
Passive voice is also regularly used in scientific writing to take the researcher(s) out of the equation. In fiction, it’s used as a way to build tension or downplay actions. Meanwhile, it’s also common in journalism. (As in, “A wave of pool-related incidents was reported at the local country club.”)
3 Tips for Active and Passive Writing
When it comes to choosing between active and passive voice, keep these three tips in mind:
1. Trim the Fat
Remember, extra words make reading laborious (something you definitely want to avoid when creating content for your customers) and writing flabby. Use active voice where possible to tighten and tone your content.
2. Think SAT
Good writers take a couple of stabs at a blog post or article before it’s complete. At the polishing stage, remember SAT — subject, action, target — and edit accordingly where possible.
3. Add Zombies!
Wait. What? Zombies? Yes, and here’s why. If you’re not sure if a sentence is in active or passive voice, try adding “by zombies” to the end of it. If it makes sense, your sentence is probably passive. For example, “The pool water was fouled (by zombies!)” is a passive sentence. And, if you’ve been following along, you know that it’s also inaccurate. The pool in question was actually fouled by a cheeseburger.
The Bottom Line
Great writing should flow seamlessly, be clear and concise, and free from unnecessary words and confusingly long sentences. We hope these tips help your writing stay as active as possible. And if you want more grammar tips, make sure to check out the Grammar Guide for Busy People.
Another tip is to check out how Acrolinx can help! We love language, and our AI content impact software is helping people create content that is more findable, readable, and enjoyable. We can help you get rid of all of your unwanted passive voice, too.