You’ve written the perfect witty sentence for your blog. But, ever had a blank moment when the checker says ‘Passive Voice (consider revising)? Eh? What?
Well, this is flagging up a basic English grammar rule about the active and passive voice. When you write, the grammar you choose gives a certain voice. Depending on the construction of your sentence, the voice is either passive or active.
What’s the difference?
- An active voice tells what a person thinks or does.
- A passive voice tells what is done to something or someone.
Seriously, why does active and passive voice matter?
I’m guessing you want your writing to be impactful, clear and persuasive?
If you use active voice your sentences, and writing, will be more efficient and powerful.
In active voice everything revolves around the subject of the sentence. In passive voice the subject is kind of tagged on at the end with usually more words than you really need in the middle.
Other benefits to using Active Voice are:
- Your hard-hitting points will be easier to understand
- Clearer sentences appeal to a global audience with varying levels of English
- Shorter sentences means more space in your word count
- It sounds more confident and trustworthy
- It adds to your professionalism. If you need more general help with English grammar, I always use my English Grammar for Dummies, UK Edition
- It helps with Search Engine Optimisation (SEO)
- If you choose descriptive vivid verbs you can help the reader visualize your point and make more impact. Why have a politician ‘speak’ when they can ‘address’ or ‘lecture.’
Hints you may be using passive voice in your grammar
Do the words ‘be’ and it’s variations of ‘have been’ or ‘being’ feature heavily in your writing? Are they usually followed by a verb in the past tense like ‘spoken’ or ‘finished’? Chances are you’re using passive voice.
Examples are: ‘The speech will be finished soon’ or ‘they have been invited to the manifesto launch.’
Did you notice the pattern? Subject then Verb and then Object. If you want to be confident your sentence is active make sure the subject is doing the acting.
So, can you ever use passive voice?
‘Never use the passive where you can use the active’
George Orwell, ‘Politics and the English Language (Penguin Modern Classics)', 1946
As a principle using the passive voice to create lofty long sentences may make you feel better but it doesn’t help your reader.
Read it out loud. Where’s the subject of that sentence. Does it even have one? If it sounds clunky then it will not ready well and you probably need to change it to the active voice.
But, on occasion you may feel the need to break up those short sharp sentences or perhaps soften the edges of a sentence. You can also use the passive voice if the subject is unknown. Both of these will be rare.
How politicians use the passive voice (just for fun...)
Politicians use the passive voice to divert blame and to soften hard messages.
The classic is ‘Mistakes were made’ – this does not tell you anything. Who made them? What mistakes? Henry Kissinger, President Clinton, and President George W Bush have used it. In the UK, David Cameron used it in response to alleged UK involvement in torture at Guantanamo Bay.
In 2008, President Obama warned with little clarity, “there will be setbacks.”
Indeed, entire political speeches, usually about President Trump, have been made attacking opponents without even mentioning their name (i.e. the subject of the sentence)