5 Ways Using Active Voice Will Improve Your Writing

30 May 2022


The English language has two “voices” used in speaking and writing. It is quite common to hear references to these voices, but what do they truly mean? And when should each voice be used?

What is voice?

English uses the term “voice” to refer to the connection between the subject and the object of a sentence.

This connection is possible through the use of verbs. As such, verbs and their voice tell readers and listeners the relationship between the subject and the object of the sentence.

There are two voices: the active and the passive.

The difference between these two voices focuses on the subject.

Thus, the subject plays a more prominent role in one voice and a less prominent one in the other.

Writers choose to use one voice over the other to highlight the importance of the subject in the sentence.

What is the active voice?

In the active voice, the sentence’s subject plays a prominent role. The subject clearly states who does the action. The verb indicates the action, while the object is the “recipient” of the action.

Consider the following examples:

  • Tim went to the grocery store.
  • Mary and I play basketball on the weekends.
  • The CEO will address the staff later this week.

In the examples above, the subject represents the “doer” of the action. For instance, Tim is the person that went to the store. The sentence shows this point.

Please note that the active voice drops the use of subjects only in the imperative form, as the “you” subject is implicit. For instance:

  • Pick up your toys.
  • Go to your room.
  • Eat your vegetables.

Imperative statements are commands and assume the use of “you,” whether singular or plural.

What is the passive voice?

In general, the passive voice is the opposite of the active voice. How so? The passive voice essentially switches the subject and the object so that the object occupies the subject’s position and vice-versa. Here is an example:

  • Active: The girls fixed the car.
  • Passive: The car was fixed by the girls.

In the active example, the subject “the girls” states who did the action.

The verb “fixed” indicates the action, while the object “the car” shows the recipient of the action.

In the passive example, the subject and object trade places.

Now, “the car” occupies the subject’s position as it comes before the verb. While “by the girls” denotes who did the action, the doer is often omitted in the passive voice.

Why use the passive voice?

There are three main reasons why English speakers use the passive voice.

  1. To denote a formal tone. Generally speaking, the passive indicates a formal tone, giving its impersonal references. As such, the passive voice is a staple of formal academic and scientific writing. For instance, the sentence “It has been suggested that taxpayers oppose new hikes” denotes a formal, academic tone.
  2. To maintain an impersonal tone. Often, English speakers use the passive voice to avoid accusation. For instance, “John Doe robbed the bank” may seem accusatory. In contrast, “The bank was robbed” does not directly state who did the action.
  3. To signal an authoritative tone. Some English speakers utilize the passive voice to show an authoritative tone. For example, “Calls from company phones are prohibited.” This sentence states a prohibition but does not delve into who has issued it.

The use of the passive voice has been under scrutiny for many years. Specifically, calls to avoid the passive voice revolve around the ambiguity that may result from using it. For instance:

  • The bill was introduced to the Senate last week.

The sentence above lends itself to ambiguity as it is impossible to determine who introduced the bill without background knowledge. Therefore, the overall context must make clear who introduced the bill.

Also, the passive voice tends to be needlessly wordy. For some writers, using longer, more decorated expressions is acceptable. Nevertheless, mainstream writing methodology suggests that clear and concise writing should prevail as much as possible.

Consider this comparison:

  • Passive: The study was conducted last year by a research team out of the Netherlands.
  • Active: A research team from the Netherlands conducted the study last year.

The passive statement may be confusing or hard to follow, particularly for a general audience. The active statement shows the writer’s intent much more clearly.

This is why  use of the passive voice continues to fall increasingly out of favor, especially when writing for mainstream or general audiences.

5 Reasons to Use the Active Instead of the Passive Voice

Considering that the passive voice has a tendency to be ambiguous and needlessly wordy, using the active voice is usually more favorable.

Generally speaking, the active voice helps promote communication by emphasizing effective writing.

Here are five key reasons why the active voice is more suitable for effective communication than the passive voice.

1. Clarity

Earlier, this discussion pointed out the tendency toward ambiguity when using the passive voice. Indeed, the passive voice can create issues with clarity. Therefore, using the active voice provides a much simpler way of delivering a clear and unequivocal message.

Consider the following example:

  • Passive: According to research, it is suggested that millions of people will lose their homes as coastal cities are flooded.
  • Active: Research suggests that millions of people will lose their homes when oceans flood coastal cities.

In the passive sentence, a formal, academic tone indicates the risk of flooding in coastal cities. Moreover, the sentence states that research suggests this phenomenon will occur. However, the wording can become confusing and hard to follow.

In the active sentence, there is a direct statement regarding how research suggests flooding will be an issue. Moreover, the sentence states that oceans will flood coastal cities. Including “oceans” in the sentence removes any doubt regarding the cause of flooding.

On the whole, the active voice allows messages to come across directly. It reduces the likelihood of information becoming jumbled amid a complex articulation of ideas. Ultimately, clear writing facilitates comprehension while reducing the time needed to go through a text.

2. Economy

The passive voice requires more words to communicate a message.

Economizing words may not be a concern when word counts are not constrained.

However, most publications (journals, newspapers, blogs) have specific word counts.

Hence, writers must find a way to say as much as possible in as few words as possible.

The active voice allows writers to cut down on needlessly wordy sentences. Additionally, the active voice reduces the likelihood of inflated phrases. While creative writers use over-the-top wording to create an effect, nonfiction writers must stay on point at all times.

Consider this example:

  • Passive: It was earlier shown by this defense that the defendant was not present at the scene of the crime at the time of the murder.
  • Active: The defense showed earlier that the defendant was not at the crime scene when the murder occurred.

The first sentence utilizes the passive voice to create an effect. In particular, the defense attorney wishes to draw attention to the facts and not necessarily the defense.

This style may work during oral arguments in a courtroom but may take up unnecessary space in a written document. Moreover, the passive sentence may become confusing to some readers.

In contrast, the active sentence states clearly that the defense showed the defendant’s whereabouts at the time of the murder.

This sentence not only economizes words but also facilitates comprehension, particularly for non-legal observers.

Also, please note that the first sentence uses 25 words, whereas the second sentence uses 17. Over a full text, writers can communicate much more information within the same space using the active rather than the passive voice.

3. Consistency

Using the active voice promotes consistency throughout a text. Consistency is an essential part of writing logical and coherent texts. As such, using the active voice facilitates maintaining a consistent writing style. Conversely, using the passive voice is not conducive to a consistent style, and creates extremely ambiguous and hard-to-follow texts.

Moreover, jumping between active and passive voice can create a disjointed narrative that readers may not grasp.

Consider the following examples:

  • Passive: A new policy was introduced this week asking workers to report defects following their shifts. The company intends to centralize reporting in order to locate production problems. The policy has been supported by managers but criticized by workers.
  • Active: The company introduced a new policy this week asking workers to report defects following their shifts. The aim is to centralize reporting to locate production problems. Managers have supported the change, but workers have criticized it.

Indeed, both paragraphs show a considerable contrast. In the first paragraph, switching back and forth between active and passive voice creates inconsistency. As a result, the paragraph may be confusing to follow. In the second paragraph, the use of the active voice throughout creates a much smoother text. It is also much easier to read and follow.

4. Simplicity

The active voice greatly simplifies texts by using shorter and clearer sentences. This approach is highly useful, especially when the text is a general, nonfiction one.

Additionally, writing for general audiences requires a simpler approach to avoid confusing readers with complex sentences or terminologies.

Please note that this point is not about assuming readers are unintelligent. It is about ensuring that everyone can easily understand a text’s message.

Consider the following sentence:

  • The entrance exam to college has been failed by more than one-third of high school students aged 18 and older.

This sentence, in the passive, provides general information about a college entrance exam. However, it is too complex to be part of a general information sheet. Thus, simpler wording would be more effective in a general information text.

Consider this alternative:

  • More than one-third of high school students 18 and older have failed the entrance exam.

While the message is the same, the sentence flows more naturally, making it easier to follow. It is, therefore, worth considering the active voice over the passive when producing texts for general audiences.

5. Formality

Those who believe the active voice is not appropriate for formal writing may be surprised to find it is. The active voice can be as formal as the passive voice. The difference lies in wording and tone. Consider this sentence:

  • Passive: It is estimated that 10 percent of parents support the school board’s new initiative.

The use of the passive denotes a formal tone. The sentence is also clear, but it could be simpler and more concise.

Consider this alternative:

  • Active: Approximately 10 percent of parents support the school board’s new policy.

In this example, the tone is formal, but the sentence is much simpler and concise.

Why is this approach important?

Please bear in mind that formal writing values the reader’s time. Therefore, economizing words and expressing ideas concisely gives readers what they need to know without overburdening them with inflated texts.

Summing it Up

The active voice helps deliver a clear and concise message to readers. Considering the need to economize text and time, writers using the active voice give readers everything they need to know.

Please remember that it is not a mistake to use the passive voice. However, overusing the passive voice can lead to confusing and hard-to-follow sentences.

Therefore, writers should value the active voice over the passive voice as much as possible. In doing so, writers can give readers the information they need without overburdening them with long and complex sentences.

Conciseness is a valuable commodity in the English language. Using the active voice can help writers exploit conciseness to the fullest.

Zach Richter 

Related Content

  • 0 Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *