Ode to Style (and Grammar)

Tips for strengthening your writing, part III: Use the active voice.

So you’re reading through a particularly important passage of your manuscript, and it seems a little bland. Try the active-voice remedy—it can make your writing come alive.

Another famous advocate of the active voice was Winston Churchill: “What if I had said, instead of ‘We shall fight on the beaches,’ ‘Hostilities will be engaged with our adversaries on the coastal perimeter’?”

First, a SUPER-QUICK GRAMMAR DEFINITION: You can determine an active vs. a passive sentence by looking at the verbs. A verb is in the active voice when its subject is the doer of the act. It is in the passive voice when the subject is acted upon.

Example

  • Active: The author [subject] burned [verb] the manuscript [object].
  • Passive: The manuscript [subject] was burned [verb] by the author.

In this example, both sentences are grammatically correct. But the passive sentence is, as Strunk and White say in their Elements of Style, “less direct, less bold, and less concise.”

Warning: the active-voice remedy is not a cure for every sentence. Some sentences work better in the passive voice. Even Strunk and White admit that the passive voice “is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary.” Here are two cases when you might want to use the passive:

  • When you want to emphasize the receiver of the action (by making it the subject). 

Passive: I was seriously injured as a result of your negligence. (I is emphasized.)
Active: Your negligence seriously injured me.

Here’s another example: This proposal is based on a careful analysis of all available research studies. (The basis for the proposal is emphasized and the name of the person who drafted it is not important.)

  • When the doer of the action is not important or is deliberately not mentioned.

The decision was made without consulting any of the board members. (Emphasizes how the decision was made and omits the name of the person responsible.)

Mistakes were made. (A good example of a non-apology apology. No one has to take the blame!)

Thanks to The Gregg Reference Manual, 11th edition, for some of the examples and the useful information on active and passive voice.

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