Passive Voice Tends to be Indirect and Difficult
Consider the following messages.
- In an email to a supplier, my engineer declared, “It was determined to use cast-iron instead of aluminum for this component.”
- In a thank-you card, my colleague acknowledged, “Your thoughtfulness and assistance are greatly appreciated.”
- In a facsimile cover letter, my attorney confirmed, “A copy of this letter will be sent to you by post.”
These sentences are in passive voice. Each sentence, although grammatically correct, seems impersonal and is rather obscure about responsibility of the respective actions or feelings conveyed.
In general, sentences in passive voice tend to be long-winded and indirect in expression.
Structures of Active and Passive Sentences
Sentences in active voice have the owner-verb-recipient structure. Here is an example: “Our assistant lost your project report.”
Sentences in the passive voice have the recipient-verb-owner structure. Sometimes, the owner is absent, leading to recipient-verb structures. Here are examples: “Your project report was lost by our assistant,” or just, “your project report was lost.”
‘Grammar Girl’ Promotes Active Voice
Passive sentences aren’t incorrect; it’s just that they often aren’t the best way to phrase your thoughts. Sometimes passive voice is awkward and other times it’s vague.
When you put sentences in passive voice, it’s easy to leave out the agent doing the action. For example, “Amy is loved” is passive. The problem with that sentence is that you don’t know who loves Amy. In fact, politicians often use passive voice to intentionally obscure the idea of who is taking the action.
So, these are some of the reasons to avoid passive voice: the form can lead to awkward sentences and obscured meaning. Also, passive voice is wordy. You can tighten up your writing a lot if you use active voice more often than passive.
Active Voice is Ideal
Active voice is direct, simple and shorter in structure. Therefore, communications in active voice convey clarity of thought and hence are easier to understand.
Here are enhancements to the three examples in the first section of this article.
- In his email to a supplier, the engineer could declare, “We determined to use cast iron instead of aluminum for this component.”
- In her thank-you card, the colleague could acknowledge, “I appreciate your thoughtfulness and assistance.”
- In her facsimile cover sheet, the attorney could confirm, “I will send you a copy of this letter by post.”
In our professional and personal lives, how we convey a message is just as important as the message itself. Communication is effective only when a speaker or writer and his/her audience can connect and understand the message alike. Consequently, clarity and ease-of-comprehension are two of the most important requisites to effective communication. Active voice can facilitate effective communication.