Active Voice OR Passive Voice.

I often recommend students to write in active voice and abandon the tendency to use the passive voice. However, there are certain situations in which a writer is forced to use the passive voice? When should you write in active voice and when in passive voice?

Well, it depends on the purpose of writing.

In this article, I will explain, with examples, what these situations are and how purpose determines the voice. Whether you’re writing an essay, a letter, a memo or an email, this article contains some precious advice.

Passive voice consumes more words

Generally, the passive voice consumes more sentences than the active voice to communicate the same idea. While in the active voice a subject performs an action, in passive voice the subject receives an action.

ACTIVE: I believe (2 words) that the Trump administration is following protectionist policies (4 words). (Total = 10 words)

PASSIVE: It is believed by me (5 words) that protectionist policies are being followed by (6 words) the Trump administration. (Total = 15 words)

Let us study another sentence. This time on the founder of Tesla Motors, Mr. Elon Musk:

ACTIVE: In his earlier tweet, Mr. Elon Musk said (3 words) that he was considering (3 words) taking Tesla Motors private.

PASSIVE: In his earlier tweet, it was said by Mr. Musk (5 words) that taking Tesla Motors private was being considered by him (5 words).

You will notice an important thing:

The active voice lays emphasis on the subject while the passive voice focuses on the object. So, if you want to focus on the ACTOR, write an active voice.

If you want to focus on the OBJECT, write the passive voice.

Here is a situation where I do not want to focus on the subject (government), but on the object.

PASSIVE: The report (Object) is seriously being considered (Action) by the government. (Actor, Subject) (The order of important is – Object, Action, Subject)

ACTIVE: The government is seriously considering the report. 

Though the latter sentence is preferred in most situations since it is short and clear, in some situations the former is preferred. Why? Let me explain:

The structure of a sentence determines the FOCUS area. It is all about the order of precedence. So, if you place the order in an active voice (Subject – Verb (Action) – Object), you are giving more priority to the subject and lesser to the object. If you want to give more importance to the object than to the subject, a passive voice is advisable.

So, in the sentence above, if I want to lay emphasis to the REPORT and not to the GOVERNMENT, I will use passive voice.

Don’t want to name the subject:

If you don’t want to name the subject or you don’t know the subject, the passive voice becomes a compulsion.

PASSIVE: The price of coffee was increased by 20 percent. (You don’t want to name the person or agency that increased the price.)

While writing a sentence it is really important to set the preferences right. If you’re not sure of the order of importance, I will recommend sticking to the active voice.

Let us read a paragraph from “Thomas Jefferson, The Art of Power” by Jon Meacham. You will notice that to focus on EVENTS instead of the CONGRESS (subject), the author has used the passive voice.

The declaration was introduced on Friday, June 28, 1776, and the debate began on Monday, July 1. As Adams remembered, large passages were cut. He said, “For ….. reason those passages which conveyed censures on the people of England were stuck out, lest they should give them offense.” The denunciation of slavery was also eliminated.

Simple. Isn’t it?

I’ve written an article detailing the experience from checking answers of hundreds of students. I’m sure you will find it useful:

Using Active Voice in IELTS Exam – Notes From Answer Checking.

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