Friday, February 12, 2010

Prefer the Active Voice

That's the rule: Prefer. To use the passive voice isn't a grave sin, even though some writers would rather be strangled with a comma splice than use anything but the active voice. It's easier to slavishly impose a rule than it is to express exactly what you mean. Good writing communicates—that's what you want to keep in mind. That means rules bow to good presentation.

When do you use the active voice?

1. Use the active voice when you want to name the person who does the action. Compare these two sentences.

(a) The glass was broken by the baseball.

(b) Marty hit the ball that broke the window.

If we want readers to know the culprit, we would use the second sentence.

2. Use the active voice when you want to speed up the action.

(a) The paper was written by Paul, copied by Marla, and was presented by Eldon.

(b) Paul wrote the paper, Marla copied it, and Eldon presented it.

3. Use the active voice to write shorter sentences. The first sentence below uses nine words and the second only seven. That's not a significant difference in one sentence, but in a book of 500 pages, we might save the life of one tree.

(a) The vegetarian meals were eaten eagerly by the visitors.

(b) The visitors eagerly ate the vegetarian meals.

The active voice reads faster with less chance of misunderstanding. Good writers make reading easy.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I must have saved a lot of trees because my writing uses the fewest words possible.

  3. Very informative blog. I'm following. Please check out my blog at and sign to follow! Barb

  4. I was convicted of the writerly error of excessive wordiness when I read this.

    Oops! I mean, your post convicted me! :)


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