How to Give Your Writing the Appropriate Voice, II
by Owen Fourie
Active Voice or Passive Voice: Which Voice Should You Use?
Remember that in the active voice the subject of the sentence does the action of the verb:
The forestry company fired the woodsman.
In the passive voice, the subject of the sentence receives the action of the verb:
The woodsman was fired by the forestry company.
With this understanding of the difference between active voice and passive voice, let’s see which voice you should use in your writing.
Write in the active voice
When you write in the active voice, there are several advantages for the readers:
- They are not left wondering about the subject, the action, and the affected party.
- They find out immediately who did what to whom.
- They appreciate your conciseness in getting to the point.
- They appreciate the directness and the clarity of your writing.
- They grasp your meaning more readily.
- They more easily sense an involvement in the action or the ideas.
- They find it easier to recall the details of your composition.
Write in the passive voice
When you write in the passive voice, your readers might find some disadvantages:
- Conciseness suffers because you use more words in passive voice.
- Clarity also suffers when more words are needed.
- Closeness to the action or the ideas is not easily experienced by the readers.
- Comprehension and recollection will require additional effort.
These disadvantages do not mean that passive voice should not be used.
The reality of life is that it consists of many things in alternation. Without such successive changes, life would be tedious.
Imagine all day and no night, or all night and no day. Imagine all work and no play, or all play and no work—h’m …
In the same way, active voice only, without the passive; or passive voice only, without the active would be the ruin of writing. You must have both.
Although the active voice should certainly be preferred, you must allow for the appropriate use of the passive. It has its place and purpose.
Your choice of voice as you write
It is necessary to use both voices. Using the active voice is an easy choice, but when should you use the passive?
Use the passive voice if
- you wish to emphasize who or what received the action: The forestry company’s building was destroyed by the fire.
- you wish to keep the performer of the action out of the spotlight: The president of the company had been forewarned of the potential danger by one of his associates.
- you do not know who or what did the action: The fire was started in the basement.
- you find that the doer of the action is not as important as the action: The woodsman was reinstated by the president of the company.
Carefully, weigh up the choice between active voice and passive voice for a particular sentence. If you find that passive voice serves one of the above criteria, use it.
This is simply one aspect of thinking critically about what you write. If you do this consistently, you will help your readers to grasp your meaning and purpose.
I am pleased that the woodsman got his job back. Aren’t you?
If there are any points about the use of active voice and passive voice in your written work that still puzzle you, ask here for clarification. Your comments, observations, and questions are welcome.
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