Sometimes, especially if we work with government bodies, we might not notice how much the passive voice permeates our writing. It just sneaks in there and nestles in your text. Then one day you wake up and it is everywhere.
Let’s do a quick recap in case it’s fuzzy:
My sister painted the bookshelves. (Active)
In clear technical writing, we generally want to use the active voice. This means that we structure the sentence so the subject (my sister) is doing or did the action (painted).
The bookshelves were painted by my sister. (Passive)
The passive voice is a structure that shifts the object of the sentence to the front of the sentence — and the emphasis (in this case, the bookshelves).
Why use the active voice?
The active voice is more direct, more actionable, and usually easier to understand:
All forms must be submitted by December 1. (passive)
You must submit your forms by December 1. (active)
(Who must submit the forms? You!)
This year, the summer picnic is being organized by the youth program. (passive)
The youth program is organizing the summer picnic this year. (active)
(Concisely telling us the youth program's organizing = summer picnic )
In both examples, it is more clear who is doing the action with the active voice.
Is it wrong to use the passive voice?
It’s not wrong to use the passive voice. In some cases, it might make sense:
The bill was signed last week.
Maybe we don’t really care who signed it, or it’s not important.
Unfortunately, the report wasn’t submitted on time.
We want to be ambiguous or avoid blame.
The building closes promptly at 4 pm every day.
We aren’t interested in niceties — we want to be very firm.
We know English is confusing. Here are few tricks to consider next time you are writing that make using the active voice easier:
Use the Zombie Trick from Rebecca Johnson at the Marine Corps University (who says grammar isn’t fun?)
When proofreading a document, take a pass-through just looking for examples of the passive voice — or ask a friend or colleague to be your grammar buddy and take a pass at it, too
Want to take a more in-depth look at the voice and tone of your writing? Sign up for the next Writing for Understanding Cohort.
The moral of the story
Stick with the active voice most of the time to increase your clarity, and use the passive voice sparingly and purposefully.