Historian Daniel J. Boorstin described the difference between active and passive: “The traveler was active; he went in search of people, of adventures, of experiences. The tourist is passive; he expects interesting things to happen to him as he goes sightseeing [following the tour guide along with 50 other tourists who pile off the same bus].”
Now, imagine this scenario: You’re the traveler sharing a romantic getaway in the tropics with your loved one, snuggling up seaside, sipping champagne. The fiery crimson sun slowly sinks into the distant horizon and waves break on the beach and then ebb away. Your loved one leans over and expresses the words you’ve longed to hear: “I love you.”
How do those words make you feel? Probably warm and fuzzy. However, if that same loved one leans over and expresses the words, “You are loved by me,” how would those words make you feel? You might want to check online dating sites for another love interest. Why?
“I love you” (active voice) is energizing and engaging.
“You are loved by me” (passive voice) is standoffish and detached.
Choose your voice with intention
To ensure clarity in your writing, be intentional in the voice you choose. Use the active voice most often because it
- projects a tone that’s alive, interesting, and powerful
- brings the reader into the moment
- flows better and is easier to understand
- forms a stronger connection to the action
- creates more concise thoughts.
Passive voice sentences use more words, maybe vague, are distant and impersonal, and can lead to a tangle of prepositional phrases. There are valid reasons to use the passive voice (as you’ll read later in this article), but don’t use it as your default. In other words, actively write passively.
Active: I must do something immediately!
Passive: Something must be done immediately! (By whom?)
Note: Don’t confuse the passive voice with the past tense. You can write active and passive sentences in the past, present, or future tense.
Active voice sentences start with the subject (also called actor or doer) – the person, place, or thing performing the action. And like a loving traveler, the verb snuggles up right next to it.
- Jon brought donuts to the meeting. (Person)
- California boasts of the largest resident population in the USA. (Place)
- DNA encodes genetic information. (Thing)
Sometimes the subject is implied from the context, rather than stated. For example, “Please meet me in the conference room at 2:30.” You is the implied subject.
Who uses the active voice with intention? Company executives, business owners, and industry experts to sound authoritative and credible. Marketers to make content more alluring. Resume experts depict the applicant as the center of activity, not a passive bystander. Historians to document who was responsible for certain actions. Contract negotiators to define who’s accountable for doing what and when. Even comedians: “This guy walked into a bar…“ The list can go on.
The way people express themselves says volumes about their integrity and credibility. Unlike historians, politicians (and others) often use the passive voice as a ploy to mask causation or hide the truth so they don’t drag down the narrative. In each case, you may ask, “By whom?”
“Mistakes were made.”
“It was deemed safe.”
“Help wasn’t given.”
To recognize a passive sentence, look for a form of the verb to be: is, are, was, were, were not, been, being, will be, will not be, have been, should have been, must be, and variations in any tense – positive or negative. There’s no snuggling going on here because the subject never starts the sentence. Use the passive voice with intention in any of these situations:
You want to focus on the action, not the subject.
- The law firm was established in the early 1900s. (What’s important is that the firm has a well-established history, not who started it.)
- Sanford will be cited for his outstanding contribution. (The person presenting the citation isn’t important. However, if the person presenting the citation is very prominent, you may write the sentence in the active voice. For example, The CEO cited Sanford for his outstanding contribution.)
You want to be vague or tactful about the person who’s responsible.
- The equipment wasn’t turned off last evening. (Oops! Someone was negligent.)
- The project was completed ahead of schedule. (By whom?)
You want to remove the spotlight from yourself so your message is reader-focused, not writer-focused.
- You should be receiving the package next week (reader-focused), as opposed to
I’ll be sending the package next week (writer-focused).
Writers for scientific, technical, and government publications have long advocated using the passive voice to promote scientific objectivity. However, that’s now changing in attempts to make content clearer and appeal to a wider audience of readers.
“Live in the active voice, rather than passive.
Think more about what you happen [to do]
then what is happening to you.”
– William DeWitt Hyde, American College President