Shirley's Articles / Business Writing

Use Active Not Passive Voice

‘Voice’ is a grammatical term that refers to whether the subject of the sentence is acting or receiving the action. Using active voice can considerably improve your writing style. Active voice makes your writing more interesting, more lively and more … well, active!

Check out these two examples of a similar message:

Active voice: Tim played the violin.

Here, the subject is the actor, Tim. You can almost see Tim playing the violin, totally absorbed in his music. The sentence is alive and interesting.

Passive voice: The violin was played by Tim.

Here, the subject is the violin. The action is gone. The emphasis has been moved from the subject performing the action to the subject receiving the action. It is not so easy to visualise what is happening. The sentence is dull and boring.

Here are some tips that may help you to tell when a sentence is passive:

  • Watch for sentences that start with the action, rather than the actor. Sentences that start with the action are often passive.
  • Watch for various forms of the verb ‘to be’, such as is, are, was, were, will be, have been, should be, etc. These verbs may not always indicate that the sentence is passive, but they often give you a clue.

Passive voice was preferred by our great-grandfathers because they did not want to show any responsibility in their writing. It also created a distance between the writer and the reader. Yes, passive voice was perfect for our great grandfathers.

Our writing today, however, should show responsibility, and it should be more personal and natural, more focused. Remember my golden rule “If you wouldn’t say it, don’t write it!”

Is passive voice ever appropriate?

Yes, there are some occasions when passive voice would be more appropriate.

  • It may be better to make a particularly important noun the subject of the sentence, thus giving it extra emphasis.
    Example:
    It would be better to say: Our restaurant has been recommended by all the leading hotels in Singapore.
    This emphasises ‘our restaurant’, rather than: All the leading hotels in Singapore recommend our service.
  • When you want to place the focus on the action, not the actor.
    Example:
    The noise was heard all over the island.
    Here, the emphasis is on the noise, not the people who made the noise.
  • When you want to hide something or when tact is important.
    Example:
    An unfortunate mistake was made.
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