Active Versus Passive Voice – Which One Should You Use?

Avoid using the passive voice, experts frequently caution writers. Passive voice is a device that conveys meaning indirectly rather than directly, facilitates prevarication and even obfuscates the meaning, they claim. So, should we use passive voice or not? And if it is to be avoided, how do we do this?

Examples of Active and Passive Voice

Whereas active voice is a direct way of stating something, passive voice is indirect and will often convey less information.

Active voice: The waiter brought the wine in an ice bucket

Passive voice: The wine was brought in an ice-bucket by the waiter.

Active voice: He drove me home.

Passive voice: I was driven home by him.

Active voice: The road was crossed by the chicken

Passive voice: The chicken crossed the road.

In the above examples the passive voice sounds unnecessarily stretched and generally seems a less attractive way stating facts. However there are instances where passive voice is not only acceptable but also indicated:

When to Use Passive Voice

Sometimes you don’t know some details or want to avoid stating them and passive voice comes in handy; for instance:

He was murdered (you don’t know by whom)

Mistakes were made (you don’t want to say who made the mistakes)

At times some details are unnecessary or irrelevant:

She was courted by two men (it doesn’t matter who courted her; the important thing is that there were two of them)

The Antarctic was discovered in the 17th century (for the purposes of this statement it is not important who discovered it)

In general, grammarians and commentators agree that passive voice is a useful device for conveying certain types of emphasis and when the receiver of the action is more important than the actor.

How to Avoid Passive Voice

Try to make your sentences shorter, more precise and more direct. Try to keep this direct tone in your writing unless you need to use passive voice specifically. Do your research well. If you have more information you will be able to use the active voice more consistently. So instead of saying Poland was invaded (gives less information) you can say Germany invaded Poland (gives more information).

Review your work to see where you have allowed passive voice to creep in (it would have been passive voice if I had said “passive voice has been allowed to creep in”). Use the grammar checker of your word processor but don’t rely on it completely.

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