Whenever you can use the active voice rather than the passive. The sentence structure—subject, verb, object—is much more familiar to people and they can read it quickly.
Compare, ‘The tiger bit me’, and, ‘I was bitten by the tiger’. Both sentences mean essentially the same thing. My leg still hurts. But the emphasis is slightly different.
In the first example the tiger bit me; It wasn’t a cat or dog—it was the tiger. The tiger performed the action. The emphasis is on the tiger.
In the second example I was bitten by the tiger; it wasn’t my friend who was bitten, it wasn’t the zoo keeper. I was bitten. And I didn’t do anything. ‘I’, the subject of the sentence, didn’t perform any action—apart from screaming after being bitten.
Both the active and passive voices have their place in good, clear business writing.
The passive voice is often used when the writer/speaker doesn’t want to say who was responsible. Think of politicians stating, ‘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 don’t usually want to say that they made mistakes.
We also use it when the subject is unknown, or unimportant.
So write, ‘Barbara chaired the meeting” rather than, “The meeting was chaired by Barbara’.
If you use the passive voice, make sure you know why you are using it. Use it carefully and deliberately.
Back to the politicians:
‘The economy was a mess. We’re going to fix it.’ The implication is someone else messed up the economy. The speaker is distancing themselves from the mess and identifying themselves with fixing it.
This is quite different from, ‘We messed up the economy. We’re going to fix it.’
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
- Think about what you want to emphasise and whether you want to identify who or what is responsible