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Passive Voice and Active Voice

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Of all the writing issues I come across on the site, the one that bothers me the most is the excessive use of the passive voice. Generally considered a rookie writing mistake, I realize that a lot of the writers here are young and may not actually know what they’re doing wrong. I make no claims of expertise, and I know that I’m guilty of using the passive voice in my own writing, but I try to avoid it when I can.

What is the passive/active voice?

The passive voice is a sentence construction where the object of an active voice sentence appears as the noun.

Active Voice: “Brutus stabbed Caesar.”

Passive Voice: “Caesar was stabbed by Brutus.”

The passive voice isn’t inherently a bad thing, and can even be necessary in some contexts, but too much can leave narrative prose feeling slow. To quote The Elements of Style:

"The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive ... This rule does not, of course, mean that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice, which is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary ... The need to make a particular word the subject of the sentence will often ... determine which voice is to be used. The habitual use of the active voice, however, makes for forcible writing. This is true not only in narrative concerned principally with action, but in writing of any kind. Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice for some such perfunctory expression as there is or could be heard."

Another quote from The Columbia Guide to Standard American English:

"Active voice makes subjects do something (to something); passive voice permits subjects to have something done to them (by someone or something). Some argue that active voice is more muscular, direct, and succinct, passive voice flabbier, more indirect, and wordier. If you want your words to seem impersonal, indirect, and noncommittal, passive is the choice, but otherwise, active voice is almost invariably likely to prove more effective."

All I suggest is that as we write, we take the time to understand how our sentences feel to the reader and make sure that they give off whatever sense we want them to. I hope this helps.

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