Why You Should Avoid Passive Voice

In my daily editing, I am always amazed at the commonplace use of passive voice over active.  Many people think it sounds more formal, or makes them sound more knowledgeable, but in most cases, it really hinders reading. The passive voice reorders the sentence, so the most important noun comes last. It makes the sentence longer and often more confusing. For example:

Active: The copywriter promoted the book.

Passive: The book was promoted by the copywriter.

We see here that by writing in the passive voice we have extended the sentence by two words, and if you read the two sentences out loud, you will probably agree that the second one sounds clunky and harder to understand.

One of the most common places you see passive voice is the law profession. Why? Mainly because they are always discussing how something happened to someone. Someone is always being acted upon, rather than simply doing something. This is because in legal language, emphasis is everything. If you are trying to persuade a judge or jury of a person’s guilt or innocence, the main focus of each sentence has to be clear and deliberate.

Active: Smith took the money, unbeknownst to my client.

Passive: The money was taken by Smith, unbeknownst to my client.

On the other hand, lawyers can also use passive voice deliberately to sound less accusatory.

Active: The suspect perpetrated the crime.

Passive (preferred in legal): The crime was perpetrated by the suspect.

It can also be skillfully used in cases where there is a multi-part subject in the sentence and the reader could use the verb up front to make it more understandable.

Active:  Tax credits based on current state laws, alimony for the spouse as per the divorce decree and co-custody of the children pending the court order are included in the mandates of the proposed bill.

Passive:  The proposed bill is to mandate tax credits based on current state laws, alimony for the spouse as per the divorce decree and co-custody of the children pending the court order.

In writing for a general audience, however, the passive voice really doesn’t add much meaning to a sentence. It just makes it more complicated. In smaller sentences the change seems small, but passive voice can make a big difference in the comprehension of more complicated sentences, like this one:

Active: The talented copywriter promoted the book with expertise.

Passive: The book was promoted well by the talented copywriter with expertise.

A writer’s goal should be to sound more knowledgeable, or to make fancier sentences. In reality, effective writers try to keep things short and concise. Eliminating the passive voice will give your writing three key factors:

Clearer meaning, which is the whole point of communication, right?

Shorter, and shorter is better, because people are more likely to take the time to read it!

Easier to read, because passive voice will clean up your sentences and make them more memorable to readers.

If you compose with Microsoft Word, you should know that the spellcheck can help you identify and change passive sentences. It is hidden, but well worth the effort!

  1. Under “File” menu, select “Options.”
  2. Select “Proofing” and scroll to “When Correcting Spelling and Grammar in Word”
  3. Change box with “writing style” to “Grammar & Style.”
  4. Select “Settings” and find and click the box for “Passive Sentences” under style. Click ok.
  5. If you have not already, you can check the box next to “Mark Grammar Errors As You Type” so that you will be alerted to any times you write a passive sentence.
  6. Click “OK” to return to the Word Options window.

So next time you are writing or editing your document, ask yourself if the subject of your sentence is performing an action (active), or if an action is being performed upon it (passive). Is active voice making the writing clearer or is writing made clearer by using active voice?

If you are having trouble eliminating the active voice in your writing, or you want to see how a professional touch can make a difference in your content, contact Karen at  Big Ideas Writing today.