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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Welcome to The Writing Resource

How does one start a blog? Maybe you write a lovely introduction about your plans for the blog, how wonderful and useful it’ll be and how readers just must read it, preferably regularly. Man, I hope not. I’ve been trying to write this intro for far too long, and it’s holding up the posts I do have written. You know, the ones you’re actually here for. Besides, what if I change my mind? Do I want to be tied down to a set of expectations that don’t turn out well? Do you?

Maybe you just start writing and hope your readers (whoever they turn out to be) will figure out what you’re about. That doesn’t seem very likely. After all, how long will you stick around to discover what the heck I’m going to talk about week after week? No, I wouldn’t stick around, either.

Maybe it’s a bit of both: a brief outline of what I want to share with you, with the hope that it will actually work, and a taste of what posts will be like. So. My vision for The Writing Resource is to help you write a little better, sound a little smarter, need an editor a little less. This blog should be a resource for writers, editors, and others concerned with good grammar, usage, and style. I’ll try things out, see what you like. I’ll depend on your feedback on what works and what doesn’t. To start, you’ll find:

• quick grammar points
• interesting words and their definitions
• quizzes to help you brush up your skills (don’t worry, I’ll also give you the answers!)
• writing resources, on- and offline
• my knowledge: send me your questions and I’ll tackle them here!

Given that, let’s start with a Grammar Bite. Let me know what you think.

Affecting an Effect?

Is it affect or effect? These terms are confusing because they have several meanings each and can act as both nouns and verbs, though not all uses are common. And every once in a while, a less-common use is the one you want. So here’s a quick rundown.


v. “to influence how a thing happens or is experienced.” This is the most common use of affect.
It can also mean to assume the characteristics of (feign), to tend toward, and more.

n. “the conscious subjective aspect of an emotion considered apart from bodily changes.” “Patients…showed perfectly normal reactions and affects.” — Oliver Sacks


v. “to cause to come into being,” produce: Social media could effect a dramatic change on digital marketing.
Also, “to bring about especially through successful use of factors contributory to the result,” accomplish, execute: “effect a settlement of a dispute.”

n. “the result or outcome of some action.” This is the most common use of “effect.”
It can also mean purpose, intent. Or reality, fact. Or influence. And more.


I highly recommend the Grammar Handbook. It’s a great little resource for quick questions: Is it “beside” or “besides”? What’s the difference between “compose” and “comprise”? What’s a “misplaced modifier” and how can I fix it?

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