Active or Passive Voice? — Carolyn Wilker

As an editor I pay attention to the use of verbs in my clients’ or students’ writing and suggest when the active form would be more effective, and affirm when the passive is appropriate.

Active and passive voices are different than verb tense which tells the reader if the action happens in the present, past or future.

Active Voice

With active voice, someone performs an action, such as walking, dancing, running, jumping and paddling. In Bagels for Benny, a children’s book by storyteller Aubrey Davis, Benny runs down the stairs to Grandpa’s bakery, he sweeps the floor and puts bagels in the bins.

Children’s books are full of active voice because that speaks most clearly to children. Storytelling is most often in active voice. It’s easier to hear and understand.

Adults like active voice too. Action moves the story along, is more visual to the reader and easier to read. Note these examples: “James walked to the park” and “Tom traded his car for a new one.” The subjects, James and Tom, are acting in some way.

Passive Voice

A passive verb, on the other hand, slows the action of a scene and is not as direct as the active voice.

Borrowing the example of James from the previous paragraph, try changing the verb “walked” to “was taken” which is in passive voice: “James was taken to the park by his grandmother.” In this sentence, his grandmother took him there, and it’s not certain whether it’s her decision or James’ choice.

In Checkmate, Joanne Buckley explains that in passive voice, “the subject is being acted upon.” In the example, James may or may not choose to go to the park, but he gets to the park anyway.

In the second example (under active voice), instead of Tom trading his car, let’s say he’s a major league hockey player. “Tom was traded to the Montreal Canadiens for the 2013 season.” While he’s going to play for a new team soon, it’s not likely his decision. The focus is not on Tom playing for the new team but on another hockey club that wants Tom on its team. The meaning is changed and one may ask the question: Who was doing the trading?

Passive tense is appropriately used in some business contexts in which the reader learns about a decision, but is not enlightened about who made the decision, such as the hockey club acquiring a new team member.

Active Most Often Appropriate

Buckley writes, “Use the active voice when you want to be direct and focus on the action of a sentence.” Use active voice in fiction, essays and most communication with your clients. Make sure you use voice consistently. Your reader will appreciate your efforts.

carolyn-wilkerCarolyn Wilker, editor, writing instructor, and author of Once Upon a Sandbox

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