Posted by: Jack Henry | November 30, 2017

Editor’s Corner: Passive and Active Voice

It’s been a while since we talked about passive voice and active voice. For those of you who are new to the topic, I’ll start with an explanation.

Typically, in English, we use active voice, which means that a sentence has a subject performing an action on an object:

· Jenny wrote the specfile.
(Jenny is the subject, wrote is the action, and the specfile is the object.)

· Jenny mentored Tom.
(Jenny is the subject, mentored is the action, and Tom is the object.)

When a sentence is written in passive voice, the object becomes the subject:

· The specfile was written by Jenny.

· Tom was mentored by Jenny.

Passive sentences are not incorrect; however, as you can see, they are not as clear and concise as active sentences. And passive sentences can actually create confusion, particularly when a passive sentence omits the person or thing performing the action:

· A specfile should be written to create the list.

Who should write the specfile? Should someone at Symitar write it? Should someone at the client site write it? Whose responsibility is it? Maybe it doesn’t matter, but if it does, this sentence should specify who performs the action.

And that brings us to the viable reasons for using passive voice. While active voice is preferred because it is usually clearer, occasionally passive voice is the better choice.

You should create passive sentences when you do not know who is going to perform the action (as in the example about writing a specfile) or when you do not know who is responsible as in the following example:

· My car was sideswiped in the parking lot.

You should create passive sentences when you do not want to take or assign blame, as in these examples:

· Mistakes were made.

· The account was frozen.

What often happens is that people use passive voice rather than active voice because they think it sounds more professional. However, writing experts agree that we should use active voice whenever possible because it’s more reader-friendly.

For more information on this topic, see this previous Editor’s Corner post: Avoid the Passive.

Donna Bradley Burcher | Senior Technical Editor | Symitar®

8985 Balboa Ave. | San Diego, CA 92123 | Ph. 619.278.0432 | Extension: 765432

Symitar Technical Publications Writing and Editing Requests

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