Active versus Passive Voice
Professional communication should be clear and direct. Which of the following sentences would you rather read?
A – All sales orders are processed daily by Mackenzie.
B – Mackenzie processes all sales orders daily.
Most readers prefer sentence B, which is the active voice sentence. Active voice clearly identifies who is performing an action; active voice sentences usually have a direct subject-verb order, with the subject performing the action (verb). On the other hand, passive voice sentences have the action performed on the subject. In sentence A, the passive voice sentence, the subject is sales orders, and the action of processing is being performed on the subject. Although in this particular passive voice sentence you understand that Mackenzie is doing the processing, Mackenzie’s role takes on less importance because of the passive voice sentence construction.
Active sentences tend to be shorter, more precise, and easier to understand. This is especially true because passive sentences can be written in ways that do not tell the reader who is performing the action. For example, “All sales orders are processed daily” is a grammatically-correct passive voice sentence, but without an actor, so you don’t know who is processing the sales orders.
The following table uses arrows and words to represent the difference between active and passive voice sentences.
|S → V → O
|S ← V ← O ←
|Subject → actively performs the action of the verb → to the object of the sentence
|Subject ← passively receives the action of the verb ← from the object
|Subject → acts → on object
|Subject ← is acted upon ← by the object
Benefits of Active Voice
Clear / Direct / Easy to Understand
Active voice sentences are clear. There’s no mistaking who is performing the action, and what the action is. Clarity is one of the characteristics of effective professional writing, and active voice contributes to that clarity. For example:
- The marketing group implemented the new marketing strategy at the start of the month.
- 70% of our clients prefer in-person consultations with a case worker to phone calls or virtual meetings.
- The department manager scheduled a meeting for Friday, July 19, at 10:00 a.m.
- Iris Smith developed the customer service training manual.
Active voice sentences often use fewer words than passive voice sentences, thus contributing to the conciseness professional communications strive for. Passive voice requires two verbs, a form of the verb “to be” (e.g., is, was) plus another verb called a past participle (a verb that ends in -ed and sometimes in -en). Active voice sentences eliminate the need for a two-word verb and often eliminate the need for extra explanatory words. For example:
- In-person consultations with a case worker are preferred by 70% of our clients, in contrast to phone calls or virtual meetings.
Uses for Passive Voice
Most communicators choose active voice; however, there are some legitimate uses for passive voice in professional communications:
When you do not know who or what is responsible for the action:
- The office’s supply cabinet lock was picked when the key was lost.
When you don’t want to assign blame or responsibility:
- The potential sale in North Dakota was lost.
- A mistake was made in the investigation that resulted in the wrong person being fired.
When the person or thing that performed the action is not important:
- The basement of the office building was flooded all week.
When being too direct would make you sound too insensitive:
- A raise cannot be given at this time.
When you want to avoid using a gendered construction, and pluralizing is not an option:
- If the password is forgotten by the user, a security question will be asked.
Overall, business communicators tend to use active voice because of its clarity and directness. Passive constructions are generally wordier and often leave out the person/thing doing the action. Still, the voices themselves are not inherently good or bad; what matters is how you use them. Skilled communicators see both voices as options within a range of choices and learn to distinguish when each voice is most appropriate to facilitate communication.
The following video reviews the uses and offers examples of active and passive voice.
This video offers a fuller explanation of active and passive voice, and includes two interesting exercises that you can try at the end.