Mind the Voice

In which we learn about the two voices we can write with: Active and Passive

Image Courtesy Shea Writing & Training Solutions

Visionary Writing Techniques #15

“Mind the Voice”

by John Onorato


Wow, y’all can be really wordy sometimes! (And I love it!)

Still, being wordy can be a bit of a turn-off. We’re all in a crunch for time. It’s like we all have have the attention span of a … ooh, look, a squirrel! … and we’re just itching for an excuse to move on to the Next Big Thing.

With so many businesses, people, friends, customers, and clients clamoring for our attention, we have to be “spot-on” with our messaging.


Mind Your Voice

Good, strong writing always uses the active voice.

Well, ok, almost always.

The active voice is positive. Strong. Concrete. More direct. The subject of the sentence is something or does something. The active voice uses a tone that is strong and clear.

When using the passive voice, the subject of the sentence is acted upon by the verb of the sentence. “Subtle” and “weak” are qualities often attributed to the passive voice.

Pop quiz: Were you paying attention? What “voice” did I use to write the two paragraphs immediately above?

Get a ⭐ Gold Star ⭐ if you said something on the order of “The active voice sentence used the active voice, and the passive one used passive voice.”


But That’s Not All

That’s not the only difference between the two voices.

When using the active voice, it’s easier to keep your word count down. This is because in the passive voice, the sentence’s subject is acted upon by the verb. This necessitates some form of the verb “to be” plus the past participle form of the verb, plus a preposition. Usually. (English is weird, I know.)

Let me share a small example.
Active Voice: “David threw the ball”
Passive Voice: “The ball was thrown by David”

Both sentences say the same thing. In both sentences, David hauls off and chunks a ball to someone off-screen. But one of those sentences takes 4 words, whereas the other takes 6. When considering just once sentence, 50% more words is no big deal. But in the context of a whole essay, it makes a bigger difference ❤

All that being said, sometimes the passive voice comes in handy. If you’re a politician, say — they seem to avoid the active voice at all costs! Later on I’ll talk about a few other situations where the passive voice would be appropriate.

Or let’s say you’re writing an essay about a llama. (Yes, I know that in the visionary group we tend to write about things other than llamas. But that’s all I got for right now!). In that case, the sentence “The llama was lloved on by the llemur” is appropriate.

Why? Because the subject of that piece is the llama. Thus the active voice sentence “The lemur loved on the llama” might not fit as well. It brings too much attention on our lemur friend.

Those last three words — “by the lemur” — is a short prepositional phrase that identifies who is performing the action. But even though the lemur is the one doing the loving, he’s not the grammatical subject any more. Using the passive voice enables you to drop poor Zoboomafoo (the lemur) from the sentence entirely, as “The llama was lloved on” also makes sense.

Generally speaking, the active voice is more appropriate, more useful. But the passive voice has its uses too. Do write most of your sentences with the active voice, though, unless that sentence won’t make sense any other way.


Other Occasions

The passive voice is not “incorrect.” Nor is it “bad” or “wrong.” At the same time, though, it tends to sound dishonest. Stiff. Evasive. Even less trustworthy than it possibly could sound. That’s why politicians use it a lot.

But who wants to do business with someone who sounds dishonest? Who wants to work with people that avoid taking responsibility in their words? After all, if they avoid responsibility in their words, it’s likely they avoid it in their actions and business practices as well.

Face that responsibility head on. Own it. Take charge of it.

Passive Voice: “An error was made on your account.”
Active Voice: “We made an error on your account.”

Put another way: When using the passive voice, it’s easy to muddy the waters. It’s easier to obfuscate the subject, as it’s typically not specified.

When using the active voice, you have to identify the subject. In the passive example just above, an error was made. Great. Who made the error? Who is responsible? We just don’t know.

In the active voice example, it’s clear that “WE” made the error. And sure, that pronoun can refer to just about anything, but that’s the subject of a different essay.


In Conclusion

This is English we’re talking about here. So there are no “hard and fast” rules.

At the same time, though, you’re better off using the active voice when you’re writing about a definite subject that’s performing a definite action.

In other situations, the passive voice works well. Like in scientific contexts Or in reports of incidents in which the agents are unknown. Or if you want to emphasize the action itself, and the agent of that action is distracting or irrelevant.

Now get out there and write! I love reading your essays 🙂

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
0 0 vote
Article Rating

Posted by John Onorato

Subscribe
Notify of
guest

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

0 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments