In school, your teachers probably told you to write in active voice. “The active voice is stronger,” your teacher might have said. I once worked for a client that insisted that every single phrase in my writing was in active voice.
But is that always necessary?
First, we must define what the difference between active and passive voice is once and for all.
The Definition of Active Voice
Active voice is simple and strong. These are all active voice sentences:
The cow jumped over the moon.
Joanie Loves Chachi.
Block the hole with the rock.
Pretty simple, right? Or is it?
The Definition of Passive Voice
So, if writing in the active voice is so easy and necessary, why is is hard to use? Let’s define passive voice first.
Passive voice is when the subject and object of the sentence switch places. To use our earlier sentences, the passive version of each becomes:
The moon was jumped over by the cow.
Chachi is loved by Joanie.
The hole was blocked by the rock.
Basically, what makes a sentence passive is when the do-er of the sentence is listed after the action. Legal, scientific, and news documents use passive voice all the time, because, often, results are inconclusive. Someone might say, “The car was hit by an unknown assailant,” “you will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” or “studies have shown that cows have babies.”
Should You Avoid Passive Voice?
Because so many people have heard that passive voice is wrong, sometimes people go out of their way to avoid using it, just like one of my clients. In the end, passive voice is not a wrong option, just a different option. In some cases, you will sound clearer using an active sentence, but in other cases, the passive form of the sentence actually feels more right. I have come to learn over my writing career that writing, like art, is more of a feeling than a list of rules.
If the sentence feels wrong, then it probably is. If you want the focus of a sentence to remain on the subject (“That person kidnapped my child!”) go for active voice. If you want the focus of the sentence on something else (“My child was kidnapped!”), then stick with passive voice.
A note about “to be”
Some people believe that “to be” phrases are passive voice. It is because the sentence, “The car is to be expected at noon,” sounds weaker than “Expect the car at noon.” However, as you can see, the two sentences communicate to very different things. Other forms of “to be,” like “I am” are also sometimes considered passive, but really aren’t. For “to be” sentences, I would just go with what communicates your idea in the clearest way.
Do you try to avoid passive voice? Why or why not?