Use the active voice rather than the passive whenever you can. The sentence structure—subject, verb, object—is more familiar to people and they can read it quickly.
In the active voice the subject performs the action.
Compare, I wrote the report, and, The report was written by me. Both sentences mean the same thing but the second one is clumsy.
So When Can You Use the Passive?
The passive voice is often used when the writer doesn’t want to say who was responsible. Think of politicians saying, Mistakes were made. The passive version saying who was responsible sounds clumsy. Mistakes were made by this government. We made mistakes is much cleaner, easier to understand (but politicians may not want to take responsibility for the mistakes).
So write, Barbara chaired the meeting rather than, The meeting was chaired by Barbara.
There are times when we don’t care who did the action. The bridge was finished in 2012.
In this case it is not important who built the bridge. The information we want to convey is when the bridge was finished. So the passive is useful here.
Remember, if you use the passive voice, make sure you know why you are using it. Use it carefully and deliberately.
The economy was a mess. We’re going to fix it. The implication here is someone else messed up the economy. The speaker is distancing themselves from the mess and identifying themselves with fixing it.
This is different from, We messed up the economy. We’re going to fix it.
There are two other times you might use the passive.
- To make something less hostile: This bill has not been paid is softer than You have not paid this bill.
- When you don’t know who or what the doer is: The Winter Olympics team has been selected.
In summary, there are two main things to consider when deciding which voice to use.
- Most readers find the active voice easier to read and understand, so aim to use it at least 80 percent of the time
- Think about what you want to emphasise and whether you want to identify who or what is responsible
(The image in the photo is ‘Sad Girl’ by Noukka Signe via Flickr under Creative Commons licence)