When thinking about writing, we often think about grammar, spelling and punctuation. We might struggle over compound forms or when to use a semicolon. But it’s easy to miss another important element: voice, and its effects on audiences. Namely, does writing use an active voice (AV) or a passive voice (PV)? And how do we tell these voices apart?
We first need to look at the meaning behind ‘passive voice’ and ‘active voice’. Once we can tell these apart, we can learn how to use both to our benefit. In this article, we’ll outline both voices and explain how active voice often makes our writing concise and easier to access.
The Differences Between Passive and Active Voices
The following sentences are examples of a sign on the front door of a business. The sign informs visitors that there is a state mandate requiring all customers to wear a facemask.
Attention customers: facemasks are required by the mandate from the state.
Attention customers: the state mandate requires facemasks.
The first line uses a passive voice. The second uses an active voice. The key difference between these voices is their noun and verb agreements. This can be thought of with the following question: Who does what?
Passive voice often hides or loses the action in a sentence, because passive voice relies on extra verbs or gives the object (thing being acted on) of the sentence priority over the subject (thing doing the acting). Such sentences often require that we read them backwards to find their meaning.
Here is the first example again. The subject and the verb are now underlined.
Attention customers. Facemasks are required by the state mandate.
Here, the verb is required. It’s not until the end of the sentence that we see that the state mandate is the subject (the noun) that requires facemasks.
Attention customers. The state mandate requires facemasks.
Here, the noun, the state mandate is directly before its verb require.
Passive voice means the object comes before the subject. Active voice is the opposite. Active voice flows from subject, though verb, to object.
Active voice has action. Passive voice creates pauses.
Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab (OWL) offers additional academic resources on the differences between these two voices.
How Does Passive Voice Affect Our Users?
There are many reasons to choose one voice over the other. Yet, here are six reasons to avoid writing in passive voice.
Creates confusion. Passive voice often relies on extra verbs because passive sentences lead with the object. This can create confusion.
- PV: Email accounts are accessed by users when they login.
- AV: Users access email accounts by logging in to their account.
Dilutes meaning. When the object comes before the subject, users may misinterpret the intention behind the writing.
- PV: Last quarter, sales were reported to have experienced a 50% loss.
- AV: Sales reports show a 50% loss during last quarter.
May sound jargony and/or scholarly. Some writing styles use passive voice to elicit emotions or intentionally shift the focus to the object.
- PV: Various samples were tested by engineers several times. The necessary standards were concluded to be met.
- AV: Engineers performed several tests on various samples, and they concluded that the materials met the necessary standards.
May decrease accessibility. Passive voice hides meaning, which can decrease readability.
- PV: The front desk may be contacted for hotel guests’ accommodation requests.
- AV: For accommodations, hotel guests can contact the front desk.
Decreases user trust. Writers may lose user trust when their writing is unclear and users could conclude the writer is hiding something or leading them astray.
- PV: I ensure that the bugs are removed, and battery usage is improved with my software update.
- AV: My software update fixes the bugs and improves battery usage.
Increases cognitive load. Writing that uses indirect, jargony or difficult language leads users to use more mental effort.
- PV: Before entering our store, facemasks should be put on and hand sanitizer should be applied by all guests.
- AV: We ask that all guests wear a facemask and apply hand sanitizer before entering our store.
Why is Active Voice Often Preferable?
Active voice has many benefits. It streamlines and simplifies writing. The result is writing that is easier to produce and use. Writers can ask themselves: How does active voice affect my users? Here are some answers.
Improves clarity. When the subject and its verb are close together, the actions described become clearer. We decrease misunderstandings by being direct.
- PV: Driving while texting can be dangerous.
- AV: Do not text while driving.
Enhances conciseness. Look at conciseness and useability as key parts of the answer to the question: How easy is writing to understand? Active voice is direct, which improves usability.
- PV: Pumpkin spice may not be the best flavor for all products.
- AV: Don’t add pumpkin spice to everything.
Builds user trust. Active voice presents content in a way that users can trust. When writing in active voice, we are not hiding anything. This level of honesty is a powerful tool for engaging audiences.
- PV: loan interest rates are based on the prime rate, consumer credit and other factors.
- AV: Consumer credit, the prime rate and other factors determine loan interest rates.
Decreases cognitive load. Active voice is direct and often conversational. It uses plain language. For these reasons, active voice tends to decrease cognitive load.
- PV: Visitors may be able to request audio guides.
- AV: audio guides are available at your request.
Know When to Use Active Voice or Passive Voice
Active voice is often preferable, as shown in the previous examples where active voice adds clarity and conciseness while building user trust. Active voice is a path to direct and effective language.
However, it is important to know when to use active or passive voice.
In the phrase, Facemasks are required by state mandate, users can lose the subject, the ‘who’ in the ‘who does what?’ Here, the ‘who’ is the state mandate that requires facemasks. Yet, in this context, that is secondary to the facemasks. Here, passive voice works to direct users to the facemasks, not the mandate.
If the active voice alternative is ‘The state mandate requires facemasks’, the audience could focus on the state mandate (and ask: which mandate? When? Why?), instead of the facemasks.
Passive voice can also alter the impact. There is a difference between the following sentences.
COVID – 19 has infected over 100 people. (active voice)
Over 100 people have been infected by COVID – 19. (passive voice)
In this example, COVID-related illnesses are the topic. But for many users, the active headline might be traumatic. Conversely, such succinct messaging is necessary at times.
How to Spot Passive Voice
Knowing which voice to use is the first step. The next step is knowing how to find it in writing before publishing. Here are a few things to watch when writing/editing for voice.
- Ask if the noun before the verb is acting or being acted upon.
- Ask which noun (before or after the verb) should users focus on.
- Look for extra being verbs such as: am, be, are or is.
- Look for extra softening words such as: may, might, could, should or would.
- Look for verbs tenses that do not match the sentence’s tense (past tense verb in present tense sentence).
Use active voice to create direct, concise and easy-to-use messaging. Active voice builds user trust while improving accessibility. Passive voice is less direct and can potentially confuse users. It hides meanings and increases cognitive load. But, at times, using a passive voice helps direct users to a different part of your message.
To learn more about active and passive voice, practice using both. Write simple sentences in a passive voice, then try rewriting the same sentences using an active voice. Using the examples above, and writing other examples, helps reinforce the benefits, and limits, of either voice.
- Purdue Writing Lab. “Active and Passive Voice // Purdue Writing Lab.” Purdue Writing Lab. https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/general_writing/academic_writing/active_and_passive_voice/index.html.
- Strunk, William, and E.B. White. The Elements of Style. United States. Auroch Press, 2020.