Sunday, July 17, 2016


Nine years ago my professional editor wrote this piece on the active voice. It's important enough to rerun. While most authors and freelance writers know about this, many who write for their jobs don't.  Using the active voice when appropriate ups your game and here's how from Joyce Gram, editor and writer.

The non-fiction guru William Zinsser says, “The difference between an active-verb style and a passive-verb style—in clarity and vigor—is the difference between life and death for a writer.”
Life and death? Wow!

He goes on: “Verbs are the most important of all your tools. They push the sentence forward and give it momentum. Active verbs push hard; passive verbs tug fitfully.” For example, “Joe saw him” (active) is strong. It’s short and precise and leaves no doubt who did what. “He was seen by Joe” (passive) is weak. It’s necessarily longer and has an insipid quality. It’s also ambiguous: How often was he seen by Joe? Once? Every day? Once a week? A passive style, says Zinsser, will sap the reader’s energy. Nobody ever quite knows what is being perpetrated by whom and on whom.

All the books on writing and style that I’ve read contain similar advice: the active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive. Every writer must learn to spot the passive. Invariably, a passive clause contains a be-verb (or get) plus a past participle (usually a verb ending in ed). “The deadline was missed by the student” and “My wallet got swiped” are passive constructions. “The student missed the deadline” and “Some low-life swiped my wallet” are active—and better.

But, hold on! There are good reasons to use the passive. Here are some: when the actor is unimportant or unknown; when you want to hide the actor’s identity (maybe that’s why the passive has become so common in business and political writing); when the focus of the sentence is on the thing being acted upon; when you want the punch word at the end of the sentence; and, my favourite, when the passive sounds better—which it sometimes does.
Know what you’re doing and choose well (and remember Zinsser: “life and death!”).

Books mentioned above:
Zinsser, WIlliam. On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction. 2006
Strunk,William, Jr., and E.B. White. The Elements of Style. 2000
Garner, Bryan A. Garner's Modern American Usage. 2003

© Joyce Gram 2007