Active versus Passive Voice

Some books on writing advise that “the passive voice should be avoided.” Bad advice. Both voices have their uses.

Clauses can have one of two “voices.” In the active voice, the subject acts. In the passive voice, the subject is acted upon.

Active: “Rover bit the man.”
Passive: “The man was bitten by Rover.”

In the active sentence above, the subject (Rover, the dog) acts, biting the man. In the passive version, the subject (the man) receives the action, is bitten.

Active sentences have more power, first, because they’re shorter and therefore punchier; second, because they emphasize the actor acting; and third, because the reader knows who did what. You choose the active or passive voice depending on what you want to emphasize. Take these two examples:

Active: An unidentified motorist hit a crippled nine-year-old girl yesterday.
Passive: A crippled nine-year-old girl was hit by an unidentified motorist yesterday.

The active sentence puts the emphasis on the actor, on the motorist hitting, while the passive one emphasizes the recipient of the action, the crippled girl. Which you choose depends on the situation, what you know, and what you want to say. If the girl wasn’t hurt badly and the police chased the motorist for 45 minutes, finally losing him, you might choose the active version, because that story is about the driver. If the girl had serious injuries and the motorist sped away unpursued, you might want to emphasize the victim by choosing the passive construction; it’s her story.

Passive sentences are longer because they need some form of the auxiliary verb “to be,” and they have a phrase at the end starting with “by,” followed by the agent, the person or thing that performed the action (“by an unidentified motorist”). And here’s where passive sentences can become sinister. If you leave off the agent phrase, the reader doesn’t know who did it. Remember President George H. W. Bush’s explanation of the Iran-Contra scandal: “Mistakes were made.”

And that’s why the passive is the favorite construction of bureaucrats and executives. They can avoid blame by hiding their actions, as in this sentence: “The funds Congress appropriated for the bailout have been depleted.” Depleted by whom?

When the Allies were about to invade Normandy in World War II, General Dwight Eisenhower realized that the operation might fail, and he would have little time to write a communique saying so. So he drafted this first version: “Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and the troops have been withdrawn.” Then he changed the second clause to read: “….I have withdrawn the troops.” In this second version, he takes responsibility for the withdrawal, for his failure. Fortunately for him and us, the invasion succeeded. Choosing the active voice took courage.

Sometimes we choose the passive because we don’t know the agent. Take this sentence: “Eighteen minutes of the Oval Office tape were erased.” Who did it? We may never know. Writers are in the business of finding out, so we’d only use that construction after exhausting all other means. Otherwise, you leave your readers wondering. Even better, tell your readers that you don’t know.

Sometimes but rarely, we hide information we do know from our readers. A writer I coached included this sentence in a story about a heroic rescue: “The house burned down when the kitchen curtains were accidentally set ablaze.” I asked her if she knew how the curtains caught fire. She blinked and replied that the mother had carelessly lost control of her gas stove. I asked her why she didn’t write this sentence: “The mother accidentally ignited the kitchen curtains, and burned down the house.” She said she felt the mother had suffered enough without getting blamed in print. Very nice, but think twice before you use the passive voice to hide things, especially causality, from your readers.

For maximum power, use the active voice as much as possible, keeping the passive in reserve for special emphasis.

[QUESTION: Do you know any good examples or anecdotes to help explain the different uses of active and passive? I’d like to hear them. Thanks, Don.

Published in: on January 16, 2009 at 10:00 am  Comments (2)  
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