The eyebrows of students often buckle when I mention active and passive voices. The issue might be confusing, but it’s also worth untangling, especially for those who worry that their written pieces might sound dull.
Journalists, copywriters and many others who make a living from their writing favour the active voice — and for good reason.

Take a look at these two sentences:

  1. Many researchers believe that oversubscribing antibiotics has created the problem.
  2. It is believed by many researchers that the problem has been created by the oversubscription of antibiotics.

The active sentence A is, I hope you’ll agree, clear and concise. In comparison, the passive sentence B seems rather stodgy. This is partly because it uses almost double the number of words to say exactly the same thing. When repeated over dozens of sentences, the passive voice makes for a very laborious read. Writing in the active voice results in sentences that are lively, direct and concise. Unfortunately, many students continually use the passive, often because they feel it seems ‘academic’. But their writing may become long-winded and woolly as a result.

The passive voice has its uses: it allows you to do away with the subject of a sentence. This is essential in scientific writing; for example, the method section of science reports is normally written in the passive voice and in my role as a freelance copywriter, I choose to use the passive when I’m deliberately seeking vagueness. Next time you receive notification from a service provider that your bill is increasing, chances are it will include the line ‘your bill will be increased’ to keep the responsibility vague. If the provider used the active voice – ‘we are increasing your bill’ – you might think, nasty company! Time to switch.

Songwriters, on the other hand, steer well clear of the passive, which can make discussing the issue fun. After all, who signs up to a writing-skills workshop only to sit through a sterile lesson in grammar? I like to challenge students to untangle the real song title from a passive version I’ve constructed. There’s a prize for whoever shouts out the correct title first. Here are some favourites:

No satisfaction can be got by me.
That lovin’ feelin has been lost by you.
A dollar is needed by me.

So, if you feel your written work lacks impact, get proactive with the active.

20 December 2017

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