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Your Voice – Active or Passive?

–Active and Passive Voice Explained — Finally!

A reader wrote and asked if I would explain Active and Passive voice, because she has been using an electronic grammar checker and it keeps saying she should use MORE passive sentences.

Um. No. Please don’t.

She wasn’t completely sure what it meant, although she’s heard the terms before (haven’t we all?).

The terms Active and Passive merely relate to the word order in a sentence.

If the first few words are about the actor/doer, it’s considered an Active Voice sentence.

If the first few words are about the results of action, it’s considered a Passive Voice sentence.

So, first things first:

Why should we use Active Voice in sentences? Because the sentences:

1. Focus on the actor (the being or entity that creates the action).

2. Are short and direct.

3. Are easy to understand.

4. Enhance accountability.

But the one negative about them?

1. They may not be tactful.

Why not use Passive Voice in sentences? Because the sentences:

1. Focus on the results of the action.

2. Are wordy and indirect.

3. Can be hard to understand, especially when no actor is named.

4. Allow “weaseling” when no actor is named.

But the one positive is:

1. They allow us to be tactful.

Saying active sentences focus on the actor means that the actor is one of the first words in the sentence, often the very first. You’ll see that in the following explanations.

Saying passive sentences focus on the results means that the results are what you read about first, and later — if you’re lucky — you get to see who created the results.

Here are two examples of passive voice sentences:

The letter was forwarded by John.

The quarterly statements will be mailed by the end of the week.

Notice that in the first sentence, you at least DO know who forwarded the letter, right? But you have to read to the end of the sentence to find that information, and although it’s easy in a six-word sentence, it’s much tougher and tedious in a 20-word sentence.

In the second sentence, all you know is that the quarterly statements will be mailed (you know the result that is expected), but nowhere does it say by whom or by what. How is it going to happen? Magic? Doubtful.

It’s the worst kind of passive writing.

Here’s how to change Passive Voice to Active Voice

  • Find the word “by,” which is usually near the end of the sentence.
  • Use the word(s) after “by” to start your active voice sentence, if it makes sense (see below).
  • If “by” is not written, ask yourself: “By whom or by what?” How is it going to happen? Who’s going to do it? Start your sentence with the answer.

Here are some examples that show how to change from passive voice to active voice:

1. The workshop was created by Susan.

The first one above should be easy; read until you find the person or entity that created the workshop. Start your new sentence with that name. Notice that you go from six words to four, which isn’t a huge deal, but imagine how many words you could eliminate if you changed most of your sentences from passive to active!

2. Arrangements should be made for the meeting.

Number 2, above, is tougher, because there’s no name of any sort given (really bad writing). And because of that, someday, someone is going to say, “What!?! You didn’t say I had to do it…”

Am I right?

That’s what the “weaseling” refers to above in the passive voice group. If you want accountability, use active voice. Name names. Don’t allow someone to dodge work because he or she wasn’t actually named in the sentence.

3. The reports will be analyzed and organized by next Tuesday.

Number 3 is the reason I now always say, “find the word ‘by,’ and use what follows it to start your sentence ‘if it makes sense.’ ”

Why? Because in one of my business writing classes years ago, an eager woman raised her hand, jumped to her feet, and yelled out her answer: “Next Tuesday will analyze and organize the reports!”

Let’s just say the room went silent. Dead silent. And I could only hope my face didn’t show my shock . . . it was not a pretty moment.

But she had done EXACTLY what I said to do. And I suddenly realized I had left out something vital in my instructions. Now I add “if it makes sense,” and I explain what I mean, so that no one has to be embarrassed. (No, next Tuesday cannot do something. Yes, the sentence ends with “by next Tuesday.” This is a case of a human having to read carefully and understand what’s still missing: the actual actor.)

Aha! Susan is going to, or the finance department is going to! Start your sentence with that person’s or department’s name, and you’ll be using the active voice.

Does this finally make sense?

The answers: #1: Susan created the workshop. 2. Kathryn (or the finance department) will arrange the meeting. 3. Susan will analyze and organize the reports by next Tuesday.

Now, as you saw at the top, I strongly believe that most of our sentences should be written in the active voice. But there are a couple of good reasons to use the passive voice as shown below.

1. When tact is important

Mistakes have been made.

Yes, you could say or write “Susan made some mistakes.” How well do you think THAT would go over with Susan (and maybe others who might wonder when their turn to be publicly shamed will come)? And while we might have to talk with Susan about what happened and find ways to keep it from happening again, doing it in public would rarely be a good move. Privately really is the best way.

There’s an old adage that speaks to this point: Praise in public. Correct in private.

2. When the actor is unknown or irrelevant

When sodium and water are combined, they burn. (Combined by whom? Who knows or cares? This reaction occurs without any help from anyone; it’s an automatic physical reaction, so there’s no real point in saying who combined them.)

The rates were set back in 2001. (By whom? Who knows or cares? Of course, if someone does know or care, the sentence should be rewritten with that information clearly stated at the beginning.)

For me it’s a no-brainer: Use active voice almost all the time.


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Susan Rooks
Susan Rookshttps://grammargoddess.com/
With nearly 30 years’ experience as an international workshop leader, Susan Rooks is uniquely positioned to help people master the communication skills they need to succeed. In 1995, Susan formed Grammar Goddess Communication, creating and leading workshops in three main areas – American grammar, business writing, and interpersonal skills – to help business pros enhance their communication skills. She also leads one-hour LinkedIn workshops (Master the LinkedIn Profile Basics) via Zoom to help business pros anywhere maximize their LinkedIn experience, offering it to Chambers of Commerce and other civic organizations free of charge. As an editor, Susan has worked on business blogs, award-winning children’s books, best-selling business books, website content, and even corporate annual reports (with clients from half a dozen countries), ensuring that all material is professionally presented. In April 2022, Susan became the Managing Editor of the Florida Specifier, a bi-monthly trade publication covering Florida’s diverse environmental industry. And although the focus is on Florida’s issues, many of these same challenges are found elsewhere around the world, so the readership isn’t limited to just Floridians or those interested in that state. But in all these endeavors, Susan’s only goal is to help everyone look and sound as smart as they are.

5 CONVERSATIONS

  1. I love this it made me smile. Being that I have an 9th grade educating I always struggle with writing. Take a look at what we are doing on The Writers Cafe on LinkedIn maybe you could write some advice from a more Bohemian perspective and post it there.

    • Larry, I’m always happy to know that something I post helps. And yes, I will take a look at the Writers Cafe on LI … but help me understand what you mean by a more “Bohemian” perspective, please!

      Is the Writers Cafe a BC360 thing? Or something else? I don’t see it on LI.

      • It is a place for writers, poets, artist, musicians, storytelling and photographers.
        It is a Business Articular free zone. It doesn’t belong to BC 360 but Dennis does post non-business stories on the site. Dennis must have added you at some point because you are on the member list. I will send you another invitation or you can go to my LinkedIn home page and look under my groups.. I like your style of writing. It is easy to read and actionable. I have been in business over 50 years yet sometimes I read some business articles and the are very formatted with no real way to apply what is said. You can also try this link. If it is not for you that is okay.
        https://www.linkedin.com/groups/12134912/

        • Aha, found it, Larry! What’s tough is there are Just. So. Many. Groups! And I appreciate knowing that you like my style of writing; given some topics I write about are BORING, to say the least, I always want my readers to be willing — eager, even! — to read my articles. I basically write the way I talk, exclamation points and all. Thanks so much!

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