There are many things that we often unconsciously do when we are writing. The more that we write, the more that we get to practice and hone our skills. Writing more also helps us to spot those regular patterns in our writing that could probably do with a bit of ironing out. One of the things I often notice about my own writing is that I often begin sentences in the same way, or with the same words, and so I try to vary them as much as possible. When this happens, I have to consider whether I am using the active or passive voice.
The theme on this blog for July is language. So far, we have thought about writing speech and whether to use the first, second or third person in our writing. Today, I want to look at active and passive voice.
This is about how you form your sentences. Typically, the active voice produces a smoother reading experience for your audience, making your writing easier to understand. Let’s take a look at both of them so you can spot when or where to use them:
The active voice refers to a sentence in which the subject (he, she, I, they, etc.) comes before the verb (walk, run, swim, fly, etc.). This means that the subject is said to be doing the action.
He (subject) walked (verb) through the door.
Peter (subject) jumped (verb) over the fence.
I (subject) ate (verb) an extra large pizza last night.
The monkey (subject) threw (verb) a banana.
It is generally easier to read a sentence in the active voice than in the passive (see below for examples of the passive voice), because the active voice provides a more direct way to express the sentence. However, there are some times when the passive voice may be preferable.
The passive voice refers to a sentence in which the subject is acted upon by the verb. This means that the verb comes before the subject in the sentence.
The door was walked (verb) through by him (subject).
The fence was jumped (verb) over by Peter (subject).
An extra large pizza was eaten (verb) by me (subject) last night.
A banana was thrown (verb) by the monkey (subject).
You should be able to see from these examples that the passive voice has not only made you work harder to read the sentences, but has also forced me to add extra words to them. The meaning becomes a little lost.
The passive voice can be useful in some situations. For instance, if the doer of the action is no needed or unknown:
The world record was finally broken (verb).
Or if the action should be emphasised over the doer of the action:
The world record was finally broken (verb) by Mrs Smith (subject).
Of course, we can always use the passive voice to toss a bit of sentence variety into our writing. However, using it too frequently may overwhelm our readers and make your writing appear too difficult to read. If you are aware of whether you are using the active or passive voice in your writing, then you can be just a little more aware of it.
Remember: the passive voice isn’t bad, it just needs to be used in the right way.
This month’s theme is LANGUAGE. If you have written something that you would like me to share on this blog on the theme of language, then please post a link in the comments or email me on firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject: Language.