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Active or Passive Voice: Which is Best?

While most writing advice says to avoid using the passive voice, that isn’t a universally agreed-upon rule.

If you’ve ever taken a creative writing course – even a low-level, basic one – chances are you have been told in no uncertain terms to avoid passive voice when writing. Chances are you’ve heard this in other writing scenarios as well – it’s become one of those widely accepted truisms. Everyone simply agrees that passive voice is bad form and active sentences is better – but I’ve never been sure that’s true.

Now, I work in translation and not as a professional writer – despite the obvious greatness of this blog. But since I do work in language translation I think I do have some insight into the question, and I’ve put some thought into it. And I don’t buy it: Passive form is no worse or better than an active voice sentence, and vice versa.

Active and Passive Voice

First, let’s make sure we all know what I mean. While it might seem obvious to people who work in the language in any capacity, some folks don’t.

A passive voice sentence can be defined as a sentence where the object of the verb comes first, and usually involves the use of the verb form was or were. For example: ‘The blog was being written by a tedious know-it-all.’ Active voice, on the other hand, puts the subject first, followed by the verb: ‘The tedious know it wrote the blog.’

As you can see, the distinction is a bit vague until it’s pointed out to you, and we all see examples every day of passive voice without noticing it at all.

How do you change passive voice to active?

Changing a passive sentence to an active voice involves identifying the subject performing the action and rephrasing the sentence accordingly. In the active voice, the subject comes before the verb, while in the passive voice, the subject receives the action and comes after the verb. Here’s an example to demonstrate the conversion:

Passive Voice: The cake was baked by Mary.

Active Voice: Mary baked the cake.

To convert passive sentences to active, follow these steps:

  1. Identify the subject (doer) of the action.
  2. Move the subject to the beginning of the sentence.
  3. Place the verb immediately after the subject.
  4. Add any necessary objects or complements.

Practice makes perfect when transforming passive to active voice. By regularly applying this technique, writers can create clearer and more engaging sentences for their readers.

Advantages and Disadvantages

The theory goes that the passive voice is inferior in writing because it’s less direct and less forceful. In a sense this is correct – the Active voice puts the subject in the focal part of the sentence and celebrates the subject – the actor – whereas the Passive focuses on the object of the sentence – the thing being acted on. This can often be more appealing to a reader because it requires less thought and less parsing – Active voice tends to be more direct.

An additional advantage that a person with translation skills like myself appreciates is the fact that Active voice, on average, requires fewer words to tell the same thing. In that sense, I will admit that Passive sentences is less efficient.

But the passive form gets the job done just as well. If used wisely can convey precisely the mood the writer wishes. And it has one distinctive use: It allows you to say things without referring to the actor at all. For example: ‘The blog was written.’ Blog becomes the subject, and no reference to the actor is made – a nifty writing trick only possible with Passive voice.

Advantages of Passive Voice:

  • Emphasizes the action or the receiver of the action, making it suitable for specific contexts where the doer of the action is less important or unknown.
  • Creates a more formal tone, which can be useful in academic or professional writing.
  • Helps to avoid blaming or pointing fingers, making it useful when discussing sensitive or controversial topics.

Disadvantages of Passive Voice:

  • This can lead to ambiguity by not clearly identifying the doer of the action, potentially causing confusion for the reader.
  • Often results in longer and more convoluted sentences, which can make the writing less concise and engaging.
  • Can be perceived as weak or vague, especially when overused, reducing the impact of the message.

Advantages of Active Voice:

  • Provides clarity by explicitly stating the subject performing the action, leaving no room for confusion.
  • This usually leads to more direct and concise sentences, making the writing clearer and easier to understand.
  • Generally, an active voice creates a stronger, more engaging tone that helps to maintain the reader’s interest.

Disadvantages of Active Voice:

  • May emphasize the doer of the action. Which can be undesirable in certain situations where the focus should be on the action or receiver.
  • Some writers might find it challenging to consistently use active voice, especially when trying to vary sentence structures.
  • Active voice may not be suitable for all writing styles or formal contexts. Where passive might be preferred for its formality.

The debate over passive versus active voice in writing is not a matter of absolute right or wrong. Both have their merits and can be effectively used depending on the context and writer’s intent. While active voice offers directness and conciseness, passive voice shines in specific situations where emphasis on the action or receiver is more appropriate. As writers, understanding the strengths and weaknesses of each allows us to skillfully wield these tools to convey our messages with clarity and impact. In doing so it enhances the richness and diversity of our written expression.

author post

Liraz Postan

Liraz is an International SEO and Content Expert with over 13 years of experience.


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