Using the active voice

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This week we’re comparing the active voice and the passive voice.

It sounds scarily grammatical, but stay with me. Once you know how to use them, the active and passive voices are powerful writing tools.

What is the active voice?

The active voice is all about energy, direction and, yes, action.

We usually write simple sentences in the active voice. Here’s an example:

Rosie built the shed.

The person who is acting (Rosie) is at the beginning of the sentence. She comes before the verb (built). She kicks off the action and the sentence continues from there.

What is the passive voice?

You could also write this sentence in the passive voice.

The shed was built by Rosie.

This time Rosie, the ‘doing’ person, comes after the verb. The shed is now at the beginning.

We can even use the passive voice to take Rosie out of the sentence altogether:

The shed was built on Monday.

In this version we don’t know who built the shed. We can use the passive to hide the identity of the ‘doing’ person. They become a grammatical secret agent.

Three reasons to use the active voice

People tend to use the passive voice far more than they need to. Most of the time, the active voice is the best option:

  • It’s clear

It’s amazing how confusing the passive voice can be. Here’s an example:

The medication should be given on Wednesday and taken on the same day.

This rather odd sentence makes much more sense when we put it in the active voice:

The pharmacist should be given to the patient on Wednesday. The patient should take it on the same day.

Avoid the passive voice and you avoid confusion.

  • It’s dynamic

You can tell that the ‘passive voice’ isn’t a party animal just from its name. It’s clunky and lifeless, and it sucks the excitement out of any sentence it meets.

Holly was proposed to. (Sorry? Did you say something?)

Holly was proposed to by David. (What was that about Holly and David?)

Let’s try the active voice:

David proposed to Holly! (Woohoo! Crack open the champagne!)

  • There are no secret agents

One of the most unhelpful things about the passive voice is the way it can hide the ‘doing’ person.

When you arrive at the hospital, you will be taken to the ward.

Did you spot the ‘secret agent’? The writer has left out the person who will take the patient to the ward. This makes it harder for the reader to imagine what will happen when they arrive at hospital.

It even sounds a bit threatening, as though some faceless individual will grab them from behind and march them off under protest.

We can remove this unnecessary mystery by using the active voice:

When you arrive at the hospital, one of our nurses will take you to the ward.

By identifying the ‘doing’ person, we’ve made this sentence much clearer and friendlier. It may seem like a little thing, but it makes a big difference.

 

Let’s put the active voice into action! Come back on Thursday for grammatical fun in the Write for Real People Workshop.

Of course, there are times when the passive really is necessary, but we’ll save those for next week…

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