Grammar Bite: Active vs. Passive Voice

You want to keep your readers engaged with your writing to the end. You want them awake and interested in what you have to say. One way to do this is to use more active voice and less passive voice in your writing.

Active voice? Passive voice? What is all this grammar mumbo-jumbo? Simply put:

Voice refers to the form of the verb. The subject acts when you use the active voice verb form. In passive voice, the person or thing performing the action becomes the object of the sentence. It does not act; it is acted on by the verb. (When Words Collide, 86)

For example:

Passive: An increase will occur in behavioral targeting opportunities.
Active: Behavioral targeting opportunities will increase.

There’s nothing wrong with the first sentence. It’s grammatically correct, and it gets the point across. The second sentence, however, works a little better. The reader gets the point quicker, making it easier to understand. In the first sentence, we first discover that increases will occur. Where will they occur? The answer comes at the end of the sentence: in behavioral targeting opportunities. In the second sentence, we don’t have to ask what will increase. We know right away it’s behavioral targeting opportunities.

Passive voice emphasizes the receiver of the action, because that’s more important, the actor is unknown, or you don’t want to mention the actor: “Because online technology is shifting so quickly, the guidelines must be updated frequently.”

Too much passive voice, however, can slow down the reading process. In today’s world, that could mean the reader never finishes reading your piece.

The active voice is quicker and easier to read. It’s direct, to the point: exactly what most readers want. It doesn’t hide the sentence’s subject, which helps build readers’ trust in what you say.

Passive: In 2008, it will be imperative that the industry’s research and measurement leaders step up and deliver ways to better track the success of every dollar advertisers spend.

Active: In 2008, the industry’s research and measurement leaders must deliver ways to better track the success of every dollar advertisers spend.

Garner’s Modern American Usage offers this advice for finding passive voice: Look for a be-verb (or get) plus a past participle (usually a verb ending in –ed). For example: is discussed, were delivered, been served, being flattered, and get stolen.

Also, says Garner, watch for the be-verb or get to be implied: “Recently I heard it suggested by a friend that too many books appear with endnotes.” “Being” is implied after it in this sentence, making it passive. The active version: “Recently I heard a friend suggest that too many books appear with endnotes.” You get the idea right away that your friend suggested something.


E-mail me or post a comment below if you have questions!

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