The passive voice remains an easy target of business writing critics, but sometimes it is preferable to an active sentence.
“There’s too much passive writing,” grumbles one colleague, while another urges, “Always use the active voice.” Well, not always, and it’s important to know the reason.
Why we prefer the active voice
The active voice structure has been the default structure of the English language for nearly a thousand years (since 1100 A.D.), probably because of its simplicity and efficiency. Kim wrote the email (actor – action – result of the action) is more direct than its passive counterpart (The email was written by Kim), which inverts the natural order of sentence elements, placing the actor in a secondary position and adding a couple of words. Frequently, that is what the situation calls for. If The email was written by Kim follows a sentence or two that talked about “the email,” then that is what is fresh in the reader’s mind. It would be appropriate to begin the next sentence with words referring to the same topic.
Build cohesion between sentences
The notion of clear writing refers not just to word choice but to sentences that are seamlessly interconnected, like rail cars, so that the reader can move gracefully through the text. Using the example above, positioning The email at the front (they don’t have to be the first two words but should be near the beginning) pulls the reader in because she can see how this thought relates to previous sentences.
Consider this sequence, an active sentence followed by a passive:
Communicators who influence others rely on principles of psychology that govern how people act. These tactics of persuasion were first established by early philosophers, such as Aristotle, Cicero, and Socrates.
A writer who insists on making every sentence active would start the second sentence with “Early philosophers, such as Aristotle, Cicero, and Socrates.” But the reader’s brain would balk, uncertain how the names are connected to the previous sentences. Readers should not be interrupted to make sense of your writing.
Cohesion is built on what linguistics call the old / new principle: You position old (familiar) information at the start of the sentence and newer information toward the end.
Use both active and passive sentences. A series of consecutive passive sentences will sound boring and awkward when you read them aloud, and a long string of active sentences that do not flow smoothly from one to the next will not provide a pleasant reading experience either.