Who’s Your Star Subject?
Before you light the torches and chase down passive voice, know this: Passive voice is not poor grammar! It’s just a different tone and construction of a sentence.
Next to its vivacious counterpart (active voice), passive voice is flat and can often make the most outstanding expert look like a poor writer.
The essential difference between passive and active voice is this:
In passive voice, the subject of the sentence receives or is acted upon in a sentence.
While on Mars, the space-walking Martian was waved to by the astronaut.
In active voice, the subject acts or performs the action in the sentence.
While on Mars, the astronaut waved to the space-walking Martian.
See the difference? In the passive voice example, the Martian receives the greeting. In the active voice example, the astronaut delivers the greeting.
Passive voice is often indicated by the phrase “by the” and the subject will often be followed by a form of the verb “be” (e.g., is, was, are, am, and been). However, this is not concrete evidence the sentence is passive.
Additional characteristics of passive voice include the following:
Passive voice is less direct whereas active voice is direct.
Passive: A letter is secretly mailed by the old man.
Active: The old man secretly mails a letter.
Passive voice lacks brevity whereas active voice is concise.
Passive: Mimes are loved by audiences.
Active: Audiences love mimes.
Passive voice is confusing and misleading, whereas active voice is clear and transparent.
Passive: Many rovers had been repaired by Martians long before Earth landed on the moon.
Active: Martians have been repairing rovers long before Earth landed on the moon.
Passive voice will occasionally leave out who or what performed the action, whereas active voice clearly designates someone or something performed the action.
Passive: The bowl was stolen between 3:00 and 3:30.
Active: Someone stole the bowl between 3:00 and 3:30.
Which voice should you ultimately use in your articles?
Due to the complexity of the sentence’s construction, passive voice can often be too confusing for general audiences. Alternately, active voice can often be considered too abrupt for sensitive topics. Consider how you would handle the subject if you were face-to-face with your audience.
Choosing between active and passive voice entirely depends on the subject you want to emphasize. In any of the examples above, the subject is the star of the sentence.
Let’s return to our first example:
Passive: While on Mars, the space-walking Martian was waved to by the astronaut.
Active: While on Mars, the astronaut waved to the space-walking Martian.
By pointedly leading with the “star subject,” you can manipulate how readers understand an event or idea. In both examples, the same action occurs: waving. However, in the passive sentence, the star subject is the space-walking Martian; in the active example, our star subject is the astronaut. An article featuring Martians as protagonists would likely use the passive version. An article featuring astronauts as protagonists would likely use the active version.
All in all, if you’re looking for concision and better understanding, aim for active voice. Alternately, if you need to tone down your writing, a little strategically placed passive voice won’t hurt. Just remember this last tip: An active subject performs an action and a passive subject receives an action.