Concise language maximizes the effectiveness and readability of your writing. In this series, I present 4 handy tips for eliminating wordiness: avoid redundancy, remove embellishments, condense long phrases, and use active voice. In each post, I describe a rule, provide some examples of how to apply it in order to make your writing more concise, and (crucially) explain when it does not apply. This post is Part 4: Use Active Voice.
Use Active Voice
Let's start by defining active voice and passive voice. The voice of a sentence is the relationship between its nouns (subject and object) and its main verb. An active-voice sentence conveys the subject performing an action that affects the object (if there is one); accordingly, the subject comes before the verb (with the object after). By contrast, a passive-voice sentence focuses on the object that is being affected by the subject, so the object comes before the verb (and the subject after).
Place the subject before its verb, and the object after the verb—not vice-versa.
Here are some sentences in passive voice. Notice that they are wordy somewhat difficult to parse. Pay attention to the underlined words, which are characteristic of passive voice. The subjects are in bold:
The test questions are answered silently by each contestant.
The props for the play were created by Anna and Chinua.
The interviews were transcribed verbatim.
Before we make these sentences easier to read, let's talk about how to recognize a passive-voice sentence. It is not always easy to tell which noun is the subject and which is the object, so I'd recommend paying attention to the verbs and prepositions. A passive-voice sentence contains a "to be" verb (e.g., "is" or "were") followed by a past participle (which is usually the same as the past-tense form of that verb): "are answered," "were created," and "were transcribed" in the examples above.
In addition, most passive-voice sentences contain the preposition "by" after the verb. The subject comes after "by," as you can see in the first two examples. When reviewing your writing, pay special attention to your uses of "by," as doing so can help you spot (and fix) passive voice. There are essentially no situations when it is correct to place a subject's sentence after "by."
Some passive-voice sentences, such as the third example above, do not contain "by"—or a subject. This makes them a bit harder to identify, but it is important to catch them because such sentences can be confusing due to their lack of subjects. For instance, the third example sentence does not specify who transcribed the interviews. If the missing information is important, readers will be thrown off. (See the exceptions below, however, as this sentence structure is acceptable in some cases.)
Now, let's convert the example sentences to active voice:
Each contestant answers the test questions silently.
Anna and Chinua created the props for the play.
We transcribed the interviews verbatim.
Notice that the subjects come before the verbs, that there are no uses of "by," and that the verbs have no past participles. In addition, the objects ("the test questions," "the props," and "the interviews") come after the verbs rather than before. For the third example, also note that I had to fill in the subject ("We") because it was missing in the original.
Unlike for some of the issues I discussed earlier in this series, the distinction between formal and informal writing is not relevant for active and passive voice. People almost never use passive voice when speaking or writing informally; indeed, passive constructions sound quite formal. This is part of their appeal, in fact, and it leads writers to often use passive sentences in an attempt to convey authority or impartiality.* Such attempts are not successful, however, as most readers react negatively to passive voice because it is wordy, indirect, and sometimes confusing. Here's a good rule: Do not use passive voice unless the focus of the sentence requires it.
When is it acceptable to use passive voice, then? Simple: When you want the focus to be on the object of the action rather than on the subject. This is common when describing the methods of an experiment or when the subject is unknown, as in these examples:
The feedback was collected via online and phone-in surveys.
The victims were assaulted at 12:13 a.m. while walking on Front Street.
In these examples, you could use active voice, but the resulting statements would have different emphases (on the individuals who collected the feedback and on the perpetrators of the assault, respectively). By dropping the subjects and using passive voice, we put the focus on the feedback and the victims, which we cannot do using active voice. Always put the nouns that you want to emphasize first (before the verb); this will usually be the subject, but if the subject is not important to the sentence, it can be the object; if so, use passive voice.
Note: If you want the emphasis to be on the action itself rather than on the subject or the object, do not use passive voice. Instead, change the verb into a noun and make it the subject of an active-voice sentence. For instance, the sentences above could be rewritten as follows:
The feedback collection occurred via online and phone-in surveys.
The assault took place at 12:13 a.m. while the victims walked on Front Street.
You will not always want to (or even be able to) do this, of course; if the emphasis really should be on the object of the sentence, then stick to passive voice. I just want you to be aware of all the options so that you can minimize your use of passive voice. Even when it is appropriate, it should be used only when needed.
When you use passive voice, do not add "by" and the subject after the verb. This only makes the sentence wordy and awkward. If you cannot eliminate the subject from a passive-voice sentence without changing its meaning, then you need to use active voice and include the subject. You can do so by rephrasing, as in this example:
Andrea was hit by a bus and broke her pelvis. (Awkward)
Andrea broke her pelvis when a bus hit her. (Better)
Notice that, in the second version, "Andrea" is the subject of the sentence, and "a bus" is the subject of a subordinate clause. There is no passive voice, but the focus is still on Andrea.
This is a difficult topic, so I'm sure some readers will need further explanation or more examples. Please let me know if you have any questions or comments. I'd love to help! Thank you for reading this post (and the entire series). If you need any editing, please keep Elevation Editing in mind.
* I've encountered numerous writers who insist on using passive voice in academic writing, particularly in the methods sections of their papers. These people think that academic writing should not use active voice. Their belief, however, is a misinterpretation. Passive voice is appropriate on some occasions in academic writing—and yes, it is often okay in methods sections—but it should not be the default. Aside from a few rogue publishers, no style authorities recommend the widespread use of passive voice. Notably, APA, AMA, Chicago, and MLA styles all express a preference for active voice. Do not default to passive voice unless you are acting on specific instructions! Use it sparingly and only when needed.