Writing with active voice

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Active voice brings writing to life. In active voice, the subject of the sentence does something. Active sentences are more direct than passive sentences, and usually shorter. Want to improve your English writing skills? Write with active voice.

According to William Safire’s fumblerules, “The passive voice should never be used.” That’s not strictly true, of course, but in passive voice, whoever actually does an action is essentially left out of the sentence or is tacked on somewhere introduced with the word “by.”

Active voice consists of a subject followed by a finite verb and perhaps a direct object. Passive voice consists of a subject followed by a form of “to be” and a past participle. Compare

  • Active voice: Children cannot open these containers.
  • Passive voice: These containers cannot be opened by children.
  • Active voice: When he returned home, the changes amazed him.
  • Passive voice: He was amazed by the changes.
  • Active voice: That noisy crew will be making street repairs for the next month.
  • Passive voice: The street will be repaired for the next month by a noisy crew.
  • Active voice: The surgeon has operated on the boy.
  • Passive voice: The boy was just operated on.
Nurse and patient

Army nurse comforts child after surgery for broken leg

The poor boy in the picture didn’t do anything during his operation. Does that mean that a sentence with him as the subject has to be passive? The boy just had an operation. The sentence can be active even though a surgery patient never is!

The best writing usually comprises mostly active voice, but Safire intended his readers to accept his fumblerule as humor. Writers need passive voice in some cases.

  • The pyramids were built thousands of years ago. (And for the writer’s purpose, it doesn’t matter who built them.)
  • Several burglaries were committed in the neighborhood last night. (The writer probably doesn’t know who committed them.)
  • Dakota Meyer was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in 2011. (That means he received it from President Obama, but using passive voice puts the emphasis on Corporal Meyer, where it belongs.)
  • Your request for funding has been denied. (And so has your chance to know who made the decision.)

It is this last point that gives rise to the worst abuses of passive voice. It helps people evade responsibility, but why stop there? People who want to deflect attention away from themselves and avoid serious questioning can always insert multiple passive constructions into a long involved sentence. That way, no one will be quite sure what they said, and they can obfuscate with little chance of suffering real consequences for it!

Usually, however, writers abuse passive voice more out of laziness than out of any desire to hide something. Scholarly writing infamously displays awkward passive constructions for no better reason than this: they are easy to write and the author did not go back and edit his or her draft for readability.

I picked up my copy of Music In Western Civilization by Paul Henry Lang more or less at random, turned to p. 539 completely at random, and my eyes lit first on this sentence:

Owing to the peculiar situation created by Lully, many of the great musical dictator’s contemporaries and successors, including perhaps the most interesting among them, will be found, until the performance of Rameau’s Hyppolite et Aricie in 1733, outside the domain of the lyric stage.

That sentence contains two different passive constructions. For the majority of readers who are not well versed in music history, a composer named Lully ran the opera theater at Versailles during the reign of Louis XIV as an absolute dictator. Several other composers were good enough to rival him, so he simply would not allow them to produce operas. So it was long after Lully’s death in 1687, and even after the king’s death in 1714 before any other really good French composer became known for composing operas.

Now with that background out of the way, I’ll try to fix Lang’s sentence, without making any more changes than absolutely necessary.

Owing to the peculiar situation Lully created, many of the great musical dictator’s most interesting contemporaries and successors kept their activities outside the domain of the lyric stage until the performance of Rameau’s Hyppolite et Aricie in 1733.

I substituted active verbs for passive verbs, deleted a parenthetical expression, and moved the reference to Rameau to where is no longer comes between the verb and its object. It’s still a long sentence. Then again, it’s still academic writing, where long sentences often allow an author more precision nuances than shorter sentences would.

However simple or complex you chose to make your sentences, make nearly all of them in active voice. In fact, when you go back to revise your writing, hunt for all forms of “to be,” passive or not. See if you can rewrite the sentence with a different verb. The whole piece will be the better for it. You will not find an easier way to improve your English writing skills.

Photo credit: Nurse and patient Some rights reserved by isafmedia


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