Active vs passive voice

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Active vs passive voice

If you’ve ever been to a plain English or web-writing course, or read any of the ‘how-tos’, or the ‘please-don’ts’ on the subject, you would be aware, that generally, the imperative is: write in active voice!

Active voice is good, most of the time. There are times, however, where passive voice is preferred. (We’ll get to that later.)

The difference between active and passive voice is one of those things that a lot of people feel they don’t quite understand, while thinking that everyone else does. The Emperor’s New Clothes Effect, I like to call it.

Part of the problem, I think, is the words ‘active’ and ‘passive’ have existing associations in people’s minds. That’s the first thing we need to get past. Active and passive voice is not about a vibe, it’s a grammatical construction, a case of an easily identifiable word order.

Some people think they kind of get it, but if asked to explain it, that certainty disappears…

But it’s really not that hard!

Here’s something topical (for me, anyway…)

Active voice: Rory broke his phone.

Passive voice: The phone was broken by Rory.

Straight away, we can see that the passive voice version is longer. More letters. More words. Same stuff.

But this is also passive voice: The phone was broken.

Same amount of letters. Same amount of words. Not quite the same amount of stuff, though.

(Before we move on, a simple way to detect passive voice is by the presence of a ‘by clause’… or the ability to add one in. Pick your agent—zombies, Jebus, Sir Digby Chicken Caesar—and see if they fit. The phone was broken by an armadillo in a pink frock. That works. That’s passive voice.)

So back to the stuff, or the inequivalent amounts of it… When might you want to reduce the amount of information in a sentence by using passive voice?

When avoiding blaming anyone (yourself or other wise…)

Mistakes were made. (My phone was broken.)

This is also a useful technique when giving feedback.

So, the important content hasn’t been placed at the top…

When the agent is bleeding obvious.

My car was stolen! (By a thief! A robber! A person of dubious repute with a non-traditional income source.)

When the agent is not important… Well, in the context of the action, anyway.

A cure for moronity has been found! (Don’t get your hopes up; this is just an example.)

There’s much more to say about passive voice, but we’ll have to leave it for another day…

By | 2017-05-19T08:20:55+00:00 March 7th, 2015|Did you know, Grammar|1 Comment

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Writer, editor, musician, plain English evangelist, content ninja for hire, and general web guy, Rory does lots of things, when he has time...

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  1. […] with the font changed to fuchsia Comic Sans, making it so jarring that the author had to consider whether passive voice was appropriate for that particular […]

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