Here is a sentence in the active voice: many writers and editors dislike the passive voice.
Before we discuss the reasons behind this aversion, let’s define active and passive voice. In the active voice, the subject does something. In the passive voice, the subject has something done to it.
Here are a few examples:
Active: Mr. Heckle is sleeping on the blanket. (Mr. Heckle is actively doing the sleeping.)
Passive: The blanket will be washed on Tuesday. (The blanket won’t actively do the washing; a person will.)
Active: Mr. Jeckle plays with a toy mouse. (Mr. Jeckle is actively doing the playing.)
Passive: The toy mouse was hidden under the bed by Mr. Jeckle. (The toy mouse didn’t actively do the hiding; Mr. Jeckle did.)
Many writers, editors—and readers—prefer the active voice because it tends to be less wordy and more direct than the passive voice. However, passive voice is very useful when you want to downplay the source of an action. Consider this example:
Active: Generic Boat Company will repossess your pontoon if you do not make a payment within thirty days. (Generic Boat Company will actively perform the repossession.)
Passive: Your pontoon will be repossessed if payment is not made within thirty days. (The pontoon will passively be repossessed by the unnamed Generic Boat Company.)
In the active voice, the focus is on the company doing the repossession. In the passive voice, the focus is on the potential loss of property, which is probably more motivating for the delinquent pontoon owner.
The passive voice is also helpful when the source of the action is unknown:
The ceramic jar was broken and all of the cat treats were stolen. (The jar and the treats were passive as they were actively violated by a mysterious culprit.)
Next week’s post will explain how to use Microsoft Word to identify passive voice sentences and determine what percentage of your writing is passive.