Passive Voice is Okay–but Rarely

If you’re into writing at all, you’ve heard the mantra, “Use active voice” more than you care to ponder.

When I teach publishing and writing courses at the local colleges, I repeat the mantra, and I typically get two questions: What is active voice? Is passive voice ever okay?

The answer to the first question is fairly straightforward. Active voice creates more interesting reading. Active voice relies on active verbs. If you recall the job of verbs from your English grammar class, you’ll remember that verbs show action.

Active voice takes away the game-playing in your writing. It’s direct. It’s interesting. It’s enjoyable to read for it creates images (this is the other manta, “Show, Don’t Tell” at work).

One test to determine active voice is reviewing verbs used. Active verbs DO something. Passive verbs ARE something. Active example: Jane appeared sad. Passive example: Jane was sad.

Once you’ve decided to use active verbs, you get to improve your writing by choosing strong verbs. Example using a good, active verb: Tom looked at Bob in disbelief. Example using a strong, active verb: Tom glared at Bob in disbelief. Both verbs offer good choices in writing active voice, but the strong verb makes the writing even more alive in the reader’s mind.

As long as I’m talking about strong verbs, I’ll offer a tip on using strong nouns as well. Dig back to English grammar class and recall that a noun names a person, place, or thing. General nouns, like man, woman, or child, are okay. But your writing becomes more vibrant when you get more specific. For example, a man can become an attorney, a woman can become an entrepreneur, and a child can become an older brother (or sister). When you get more specific, your reader gains insight and begins to make a better connection to the attorney (versus man), entrepreneur (versus woman), or older sibling (versus child).

Okay, now on to the second question: Is passive voice ever okay? The answer is yes, but rarely. Use passive voice when you don’t want to show ownership of the action. Example: It was noticed you were late to work three times last week. Well, who noticed? No ownership. Don’t know.

Use passive voice when the object of the verb (the subject is the one doing the action) is important. Example: Karen was in a car accident. What’s important is Karen, not the accident, in this sentence. Something happened to Karen and she is the object (she didn’t do the action–or at least we can’t tell from this sentence if she caused the accident, which is the “no ownership” point I made earlier).

Government, academia, and business tend to employ the passive voice most of the time. Why not? No ownership! Everyone knows how much people salivate to get their hands on the latest tax regulation, and that should show us how much readers want to read passive voice.

Use passive voice when it serves your purpose, but use it rarely if you want your readers to keep reading.

Happy writing!


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