Use The Active Voice For Clear Writing.

Use the active voice; minimize the passive voice.

As pointed out in the April 17, 2012 post, discussing hidden verbs, a verb is a word or word group that makes an assertion.  The Century Handbook of Writing, 4th Ed., p. 140, explains that the full meaning of a verb depends on the inflectional forms that show voice, mode, and tense.  Voice shows whether the subject performs or receives the action expressed by the verb.

 Using the active voice as opposed to the passive voice has been written about extensively, much of it confusing.  The secret of the active voice is simply to write more directly. In other words, to borrow a thought from a legendary songwriter, the late Johnny Mercer, you should “accentuate the positive” in your writing.

More specifically, the active voice makes it clear who is supposed to perform the action in the sentence. When using the active voice in a sentence, the person who’s acting is the subject of the sentence.  Where the passive voice is used, the person who is acted upon is the subject of the sentence. The active voice eliminates ambiguity about responsibility for action; the passive voice obscures that responsibility. More than any other writing technique, use of the active voice will improve the quality of your writing.

The following examples reflect the difference:

Active – Albert and Bess missed their tax return filing deadline.

Passive – The deadline for filing their tax return was missed by Albert and Bess.

Active –   A smart shopper buys only the freshest coffee.

Passive – Only the freshest coffee is bought by a smart shopper.

Active –  The IRS has proposed new regulations.

Passive –  New regulations have been proposed by the IRS.

Active –  You need a fishing permit to fish in that lake.

Passive –  A fishing permit is required to fish in that lake.

Writing in the active voice will usually result in the elimination of abstract or vague words and a clearer, easier to understand sentence.  Thus,

I purchased the airplane ticket,

is better than,

The airplane ticket was purchased by me.

We appreciated your report,

is better than,

Your report was appreciated by us.

Readers understand sentences in the active voice more quickly because the active voice is not only stronger and saves words but conveys the writer’s thought more directly.

Use the present tense of verbs, their strongest and simplest form, together with the active voice and a personal pronoun, to transform sentences and make them shorter, easier to understand, and more forceful and direct. Writing in the present tense helps to make your point clearly.  Avoid conditional or future tense when possible.

Before  -The following summary is intended to assist buyers in understanding the costs and expenses that will be incurred if product A is purchased.

After – This summary describes costs and expenses that you will incur for the purchase of product A.

Another example:

Before – The subscription to the X Journal may be cancelled at any time.

After –  You may cancel your subscription at any time.

Even a past event may be clarified by writing in the present tense as much as possible:

Your policy may not cover you if you did not file a claim within 30 days of date of injury.     

However, the passive voice should not be avoided in all cases.  It may be used to show that the actors are vague, as in the following examples:  “A signal was seen from a distant peak”;  “After swinging futilely at the next pitch, the batter was ordered out.”

Copyright © 2012.  Arnold G. Regardie.  All rights reserved.

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Filed under active voice, clear writing, Writing Improvement

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