What is active vs. passive voice?
Active and passive voice are two different ways to convey action in a sentence. With active voice, the subject of the sentence performs the action (like “We wrote the contract last month”). With passive voice, the subject of the sentence receives or is the object of the sentence (like “The contract was written last month [by us]”).
Some people believe that the passive voice is always incorrect, being wordy and indirect; others think the passive voice is always appropriate, as it shows impartiality or objectivity. However, both active voice and passive voice are useful, and both have their place as writing best practices in different circumstances.
That’s because how writers construct sentences can affect their meaning and change how readers understand the information, and sometimes one or the other will be the better choice. Carefully consider who your readers are, what they expect of your document, and what action you want them to take. The audience and purpose of the document dictate the choice of active or passive voice.
When should you use active voice?
It’s true that the active voice should be the default choice as a writing best practice. It’s a stronger, more impactful, and more transparent way of expressing ideas that (usually) makes the statement clearer.
To that end, definitely use active voice when you want to reveal or emphasize the doer of the action. For instance, in Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), you want to be very clear about who performs which tasks, so you’d naturally use active voice to reduce ambiguity.
- “[You] shut off power before servicing the machine” puts the responsibility squarely on the reader. Similarly, “The facilities manager shuts off power…” makes it clear a specific person is responsible for this activity.
This same sentence written in passive voice would say:
- “The power must be shut off [by you] before servicing the machine.” (Most people would leave out the words “by you” here, further deemphasizing the doer of the action.) The construction de-emphasizes the actor, implying that anyone can do it.
Again, active voice should be used when it’s important for the reader to know who or what completed an action. We’re all familiar with the line “Mistakes were made,” which is clearly passive. In this case, the writer obviously wanted to acknowledge the mistakes while (probably intentionally) hiding the identity of the culprit.
When should you use passive voice?
Just because it’s smart to favor active voice most of the time doesn’t mean it’s always the best option. Passive voice has its place, and the writer should always make the decision around active vs. passive voice strategically rather than haphazardly or according to some unbreakable rule. When it comes to writing best practices, nothing is absolute.
Use the passive voice when you don’t know who or what completed the action or when that information is unimportant to the reader.
If you use the passive voice, do so ethically, which means that you don’t use it to avoid assigning blame (as in the “Mistakes were made” sentence).
Sometimes, of course, it just doesn’t matter who completed the action. For instance:
- “The alloys were heated to 120°C” is fine in a scientific report because, in this case, it doesn’t matter who was responsible for heating the material.
For this reason, many scientific journals and scholars prefer writing about science in the passive voice; removing individuals from the documents underscores that the project is objective and replicable—it doesn’t matter who performs the experiment. Keep in mind, however, that simply writing in the passive voice doesn’t assure that the information conveyed is going to be seen as objective and unbiased; objectivity is conveyed via tone and style as well.
Use the passive voice when you want to emphasize the recipient of the action rather than the actor.
This use-case is related to the previous one. In scientific writing, the passive voice does more than just offer a sense of impartiality, it also puts the emphasis on the research rather than on the researchers. In describing steps taken during a study, the passive voice more clearly focuses on the substance of the research.
This can have applications in the business world as well. Again, the active voice is usually going to be the stronger, better option; but sometimes a business writer will want to put the focus on the object of the action rather than on the actor. For example, passive voice can soften tone. So, you could say:
- “You must return your contract by the end of the week” (which can sound harsh and imperious).
Instead, the business might use the passive voice for a gentler, less commanding approach:
- “The contract must be returned by the end of the week.”
Using active vs. passive voice is strategic.
Ultimately, all writing best practices are about producing good work, but many choices – like using active vs. passive voice – must ultimately serve the larger purpose of the piece. As a result, either can work, and sometimes one will be better than the other. Both voices should be viewed as tools in a writer’s toolbox with which they can modulate and perfect the clarity, impact, and tone of their writing.
Hurley Write can help you to ensure your team always knows which voice to use when, as well as all the other writing best practices that underly powerful documents that achieve their intended goals.
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