Most Americans continue to hear, “Write active sentences,” but that doesn’t mean passive writing is wrong. Just know when to use it.
Managers grumble, “Why is there so much passive writing?” and insist that people “write in the active voice,” but without a more complete explanation of what active and passive are and when passive is acceptable, many writers are left in a fog. They fumble along and do the best they can. Here are a few things to know quickly about this decades-old debate:
- English speakers prefer the active voice because it clear and direct, and it has been the core sentence structure for more than 900 years.
- Passive writing is sometimes acceptable, even preferable, in the interests of cohesive writing.
- People who insist on avoiding the passive voice use it more often than they realize.
To provide a frame work, consider these two sentences:
Active construction: The committee approved the policy.
Passive structure: The policy was approved by the committee.
The active voice features an actor (committee) performing an action (approved), in that order. The verb is usually followed by whatever is affected by the action (object), which in the above example is policy. Sometimes, the verb doesn’t have an object but instead is followed simply by additional information to complete the thought, as in I waited for the package to arrive.
It is true that we prefer the active voice, because it is direct and concise, it sounds natural, it’s how we speak. People say “I love you”; they don’t say, “You are loved by me.” (Try that one in a romantic moment, and you’ll be sleeping in the car.)
A place for the passive
The passive voice inverts the natural order, moving the actor to a second part of the sentence (see above), and it adds a couple of words. But the passive construction lets you position up front a subject (policy) that connects the thought to the previous sentence, telling the reader how the two thoughts are related. Consider this sequence, an active sentence followed by a passive:
Communicators who influence others rely on principles of behavioral psychology that govern how people act. These tactics of persuasion were first established by early philosophers, such as Aristotle, Cicero, and Socrates.
If the second sentence began with “Early philosophers, such as Aristotle, Cicero, and Socrates … ,” that would have been new information, forcing the brain to pause to figure it out. Most people don’t want to take the time to do that, and they shouldn’t have to.
The use of the active structure and the passive (when necessary) enables you to create cohesion, a seamless interconnection between sentences, which lets the reader cruise through your text. Cohesion is most important. If you can make all sentences active and still create cohesion, great. But if you need a passive form of the verb for the sake of easy readability, don’t wake up in a cold sweat at 3 a.m. because you had a passive sentence in your message.
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.
So just remember that you will use both active and passive sentences. A series of consecutive passive sentences will sound boring and awkward if 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.