When it comes to written composition, the term “voice” can feel unclear and vague. Voice, however, is an essential element of style that reveals the writer’s personality. Just as a “voice” that you hear on the radio can sound pleasant, irritated, or excited, a writer’s voice can be impersonal or chatty, authoritative or reflective, objective or passionate, serious or funny.
Readers prefer sentences constructed with the active voice because they are more concise and direct. Consider the following revisions:
Passive: Listeners are encouraged by the lyrics to cast aside their fear and be themselves.
Active: The lyrics encourage listeners to cast aside their fears and be themselves.
Passive: Alana’s toes were crushed by the garage door.
Active: The garage door crushed Alana’s toes.
In both cases, the writer was able to eliminate the “be” verb (is, are, was, were), and the active sentences are less wordy.
Sometimes the passive voice will “cover up” important information in a sentence. Consider this sentence:
Passive: The papers will be graded according to the criteria stated in the syllabus.
This sentence leaves the reader with questions: Who will grade the papers? A revision to the active voice can easily answer the question and satisfy the reader’s curiosity.
Active: The teacher will grade the papers according to the criteria stated in the syllabus.
When is Passive Voice useful?
There are several situations, however, where the passive voice is more useful than the active voice.
- When you don’t know who did the action: The paper had been moved.
- When you want to hide who did the action: The window had been broken.
- When you want to emphasize the person or thing the action was done to: Caroline was hurt when Kevin broke up with her.
- A subject that can’t actually do anything: Caroline was hurt when she fell into the trees.