Writing Tip: Use active, not passive sentences
Readers prefer active voice sentences, and we should try to use the active voice in most of our business writing to communicate our message most effectively. Active voice clearly identifies the action and who is performing that action. Unfortunately, much of government writing is in the passive voice, giving documents a wordy, bureaucratic tone. Over time, writing in the passive voice simply becomes a habit, one we should all work to change.
What is active/passive voice?
To know whether you are writing in the active or passive voice, identify the subject of the sentence and decide whether the subject is doing the action or being acted upon.
- Passive Voice: the subject is the receiver of the
The tax return (subject) was completed (action) before the April 15 deadline by Mr. Doe.
- Active Voice: the subject does an action to an object.
Mr. Doe (subject) completed (action) the tax return (object) before the April 15 deadline.
When we write in the passive voice, we add some form of the helping verb "to be" (am, is, are, was, were, being, or been) to an otherwise strong verb that really did not need help.
- Passive: Additional information (subject) can be obtained (action) by employees from our website.
- Active: Employees (subject) can obtain (action) additional information (object) from our website.
Why should we use active voice?
Active voice makes documents stronger by showing responsibility or giving credit for an action. When we avoid showing responsibility, we often don't give enough information to explain the problem and how to fix it. Often, we use a form of the passive called the "cut passive" and never identify the doer of the action. This form sounds vague and abstract.
- Cut Passive: New requirements (subject) were introduced (action) to strengthen the banking system.
- Active: The Banks Act of 1985 (subject) introduced (action) new requirements (object) to strengthen the banking system.
By eliminating the helping verb, the active voice sentence generally uses fewer words to communicate the same information.
- Passive: Mr. Doe (subject) was told (action) by the bank official that he would need to provide additional information. (16 words)
- Active: The bank official (subject) told (action) Mr. Doe (object) he would need to provide additional information. (13 words)
Active voice more closely resembles spoken language; hopefully ideal spoken language. When we speak, we generally use the active voice without thinking. Our writing should become that automatic.
You would never say:
- Passive: My car (subject) was driven (action) to
work by me.
- Passive: Breakfast (subject) was eaten (action) by me this morning.
Instead, you would say:
- Active: I (subject) drove (action) my car (object)
- Active: I (subject) ate (action) breakfast (object) this morning.
Is using the passive voice appropriate in some situations?
Using the cut passive form is appropriate in two situations:
- When we do not know who performed the action.
- When the doer of the action is unimportant.
However, one caution: If adding the name of the person or organization performing the action would make the document stronger and help our readers, we should try to identify the doer of the action.
How can I start writing in the active voice?
Here are a few tips:
Turn the clause or sentence around, putting the subject first:
- Passive: This proposed rule (subject) was published (action) by General Counsel in the Federal Register.
- Active: General Counsel (subject) published (action) this proposed rule (object) in the Federal Register.
Change the verb to eliminate the helping verb "to be":
- Passive: We must consider how our resources (subject) will be used (action) to deliver quality services.
- Active: We (subject) must consider how to use (action) our resources (object) to deliver quality services.
Rethink the sentence:
- Passive: Although Mr. Doe (subject) was found (action) to be eligible for this position; all of the positions (subject) in Boston had already been filled (action) by our personnel office prior to receiving his application.
- Active: Though we (subject) found (action) Mr. Doe (object) eligible for the position, our personnel office (subject) had filled (action) all positions (object) in Boston before we (subject) received (action) his application (object).
Writing in the active voice isn't difficult if you follow who-does-what sequence. Your readers can visualize the action and follow the action to the conclusion.