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Passive Voice vs. Active Voice — What You Need to Know

The timid fellow writes “The meeting will be held at seven o’clock”.

Last week, I read a particularly wordy piece of business writing. Whoever wrote it gave me many gems to ponder, such as the true meaning of “innovative synergies”. However, it was the following use of passive voice that made me stop and question my life choices:

"An increase in sales is anticipated by our new marketing strategy."

First, let’s fix the voice by flipping it around:

“Our new marketing strategy anticipates an increase in sales.”

Better? It still doesn’t feel quite right, but at least we rescued the sentence from that passive voice.

In this article, I’ll explain the doer-thing being done dynamic of sentences. Understand this dynamic, and you’ll understand the easy way to use active voice. Plus, at the end, there’s an infographic for you to download.

Myths about passive voice.

Before I get into what passive voice is, let me address what it isn’t. Here are the four most common myths writers have about passive voice. See if you believe in any of these:

  1. MYTH: When you use any form “to be” (was, is, being, been), you’re writing in passive voice.
    FACT: “Jimmy had been eating an apple.” is written in active voice.

  2. MYTH: You can avoid passive voice by starting your sentence with “I”.
    FACT: “I was hit by the baseball.” is an example of passive voice.

  3. MYTH: Passive voice should never be used.
    FACT: Passive voice has many legitimate uses. For example: “Over a million people were diagnosed with cancer in 2023.”

  4. MYTH: Grammar checkers pick up passive voice.
    FACT: Unless you’re using the Hemingway App (and you should), it probably won’t.

What the heck is passive voice, anyway?

Online writing resources like to use academic jargon when explaining simple subjects. Here is an example I found on the University of North Carolina webpage about passive voice: “A passive construction occurs when you make the object of an action into the grammatical subject of a sentence.”

Yuck!

Let me explain it in a simpler way: A sentence consists of a doer, an action, and a thing being acted upon. This is your subject, verb, object structure from English class. Lets look at a few sentences, with highlighting.

  • Sentences are meant to convey a single idea. (Active)

  • We are writing to complain about the awful customer service we received on Friday. (Active)

  • Jimmy was hit by the baseball. (Passive)

  • Over a million people were diagnosed with cancer in 2023. (Passive, missing doer)

It’s still pretty complicated, so I like to simplify this model down to two elements: a doer and a thing being done. Why? Because action naturally belongs with the thing being acted on. You’re never going to forget the verb of your sentence. Here are the above examples again, this time I’ve bolded the doer and underlined the thing being done:

  • Sentences are meant to convey a single idea. (Active)

  • We are writing to complain about the awful customer service we received on Friday. (Active)

  • Jimmy was hit by the baseball. (Passive)

  • Over a million people were diagnosed with cancer in 2023. (Passive, missing doer)

See how much simpler this is?

In natural speech, we put the doer first. Passive voice is putting the thing being done before the doer.

For example, in the sentence “Johnny ate the steak.”, the person “Johnny” is the doer, and eating the steak is the thing being done. Arranging the sentence doer-first results in natural, active voice. Reversing the order (“The steak was eaten by Johnny.”) or omitting the doer (“The steak was eaten.”) results in passive voice.

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What’s so bad about being passive?

Consider these two phrases:

  1. The chocolate melted on my tongue. It was sweet and smooth.

  2. My tongue was coated in melting chocolate. It was sweet and smooth.

We can all agree #1 is better than #2. But why?

The answer lies in the way we read sentences. You see, when you read a sentence, you focus on the first thing that comes up. The first example begins with “The chocolate”, which tells the reader to focus on chocolate. The second example begins with “My tongue”, which tells the reader to focus on the narrator’s tongue.

Since the sentence is about chocolate, we should let the reader focus on the chocolate, rather than the tongue. Hence, the active sentence is better.

Furthermore, using active voice prevents subject confusion in later sentences. In the first example, the “it” in “It was sweet and smooth.” clearly refers to the chocolate. In the second example, “It” could refer to the tongue or the chocolate.

Remember, a good writer helps the reader by making her writing easy to understand.

E. B. White writes in his introduction to The Elements of Style, “[the reader is] a man floundering in a swamp, and that it was the duty of anyone trying to write English to drain this swamp quickly and get his man up on dry ground, or at least throw him a rope.”

When to use passive voice.

Passive voice isn’t always bad. Sometimes, you want the reader to focus on the thing being done rather than the doer. Here are a few cases:

  1. When the doer is unimportant. (E.g. “Heart disease is considered the leading cause of death in the United States.” → this is a statement about the scientific consensus, so it doesn’t matter who considers it.)

  2. When the doer is unknown. (E.g. “Three homes were broken into last night in Toronto.” → here, we want to focus on the break-ins, not the unknown perpetrator.)

  3. When you need to emphasize the thing being done. (E.g. “Our baby was delivered last night.” → the baby is important, not the doctor who delivered it.)

The marketing strategy sentence was fixed by us.

Remember the marketing strategy sentence from earlier? Remember how we made it active, but it still didn’t feel quite right? Here’s a reminder.

"An increase in sales is anticipated by our new marketing strategy." 

Became:

 "Our new marketing strategy anticipates an increase in sales."

However, this sentence still doesn’t feel quite right. Even if a sentence is grammatically flawless, it can still cause confusion for the reader. The sentence "Our new marketing strategy anticipates an increase in sales." can be interpreted to mean two different things:

  1. The marketing strategy itself expects (i.e. depends on) an increase in sales.

  2. The marketing team expects an increase in sales when using the new marketing strategy.

Since the goal of writing is to be understood, we should always rewrite confusing sentences. To clear up any confusion, I changed the doer to “We”, to help the reader focus on the person or team executing the strategy.

The sentence should read more like this:

“We expect our new marketing strategy to increase sales.”

There! That sounds better, doesn’t it? In our doer-thing being done model, we started with the doer (“We”) and ended the thing being done (“expect marketing strategy to increase sales”). This is a natural, active sentence that just flows.

Put that meeting in charge! (Stephen King said.)

There is a wonderful blurb about passive voice from Stephen King’s autobiographical book On Writing. It’s from the “Toolbox” chapter, where he talks about things you should have in your metaphorical writer’s toolbox. Here it is:

“The timid fellow writes “The meeting will be held at seven o’clock” because that somehow says to him, “Put it this way and people will believe you really know.” Purge this quisling thought! Don’t be a muggle! Throw back your shoulders, stick out your chin, and put that meeting in charge! Write “The meeting’s at seven.” There, by God! Don’t you feel better?

I won’t say there’s no place for the passive tense. Suppose, for instance, a fellow dies in the kitchen but ends up somewhere else. “The body was carried from the kitchen and placed on the parlor sofa” is a fair way to put this, although “was carried” and “was placed” still irk the shit out of me. I accept them but I don’t embrace them. What I would embrace is “Freddy and Myra carried the body out of the kitchen and laid it on the parlor sofa.” Why does the body have to be the subject of the sentence, anyway? It’s dead, for Christ’s sake! Fuhgeddaboudit!

How about this: “My first kiss will always be recalled by me as how my romance with Shayna was begun.” Oh, man—who farted, right? A simpler way to express this idea—sweeter and more forceful, as well—might be this: “My romance with Shayna began with our first kiss. I’ll never forget it.” I’m not in love with this because it uses with twice in four words, but at least we’re out of that awful passive voice.”

P.S. “The meeting will be held at seven o’clock.” can be rewritten as either “The meeting’s at seven.” or “We will hold the meeting at seven.” Both are active voice. It just depends on what you want to focus on.

Infographic: Easiest way to tell Active vs Passive Voice

Download it, print it, and share it with your friends. It’s yours to keep. ❤️ 

  • Sentences are meant to convey a single idea. (active)

  • When I opened my backpack, I realized my dog ate my homework. (active)

  • Jimmy was hit by the baseball. (passive)

  • Over a million people were diagnosed with cancer in 2023. (passive)

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