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6.2 Make your writing active wherever possible

See 6.2 of the Checklist »

Verbs are the most important of all your writing tools. They push the sentence forward and give it momentum. Active verbs push hard; passive verbs tug fitfully.
William Zinsser: On Writing Well


The active voice is more direct and vigorous than the passive.
William Strunk Jr: Elements of Style


The passive voice invariably comes across as pontificating, patronising, talking down. It sounds insincere, even dishonest, and it usually makes the reader uncomfortable, not trusting, though the reader cannot put her finger on why.
Richard Anderson and Helene Hinis: The Write Stuff

Active vs passive—How the reader responds

Consider the 2 public notices in the example below (verbs in bold). With each, consider:

  1. Who or what is doing the actions?
  2. Will the readers grasp these important messages quickly and easily?
  3. What is the tone?
  4. How would it make readers feel?
Example 1

ACTIVE:

Most safety belts are retractable. This means they stretch automatically to the correct length when you fasten them. They lock only if the vehicle stops suddenly.

Possible answers:

  1. Safety belts, safety belts, you (the driver), safety belts
  2. Yes
  3. Crisp, clear, direct, neutral
  4. Satisfied
Example 2

PASSIVE:

These works are intended to be carried out in the month of March. Throughout the works, traffic flow will be maintained in both directions and access to all side streets will be retained. However, brief delays may be experienced. Although all endeavours will be made to keep disruptions to a minimum, access to residential property may be limited during construction hours.

On-street parking may also be limited during construction hours. Vehicles that are parked on the street may need to be moved in order for the work to be allowed to be carried out. Every endeavor will be made for vehicle owners to be contacted if one needs to be relocated. If the owners are unable to be reached, as a last resort the vehicle will be moved a short distance…

Possible answers:

  1. We don’t know
  2. No
  3. Waffly, vague, at times confusing, officious, unfriendly
  4. Frustrated, annoyed

Active language communicates messages quickly, clearly, and easily. It tells listeners/readers what they really want to know: “who does what”.

Passive language winds around the meaning. It hides or buries—or sometimes omits altogether—the most important part: the “who”. It also confuses the “does” and the “what”.

Why do people use passive language?

Some habitual writers of passive prose (think officials, academics, politicians) may do so because they don’t want readers to know who is responsible. Then no one can be called to account. It’s tempting to call this language “weasel words”—a deliberate attempt to confound. However, it’s possible these authors are just being risk-averse.

More often, people write passively because they:

  • think it’s more polite (see Example 2 above)
  • are simply following models (how their peers or teachers write)
  • don’t think clearly or logically about what they want to say before putting pen to paper.

In most cases, people write passively without realising—or even stopping to think—how it affects readers.

How it works—sentence structure

Remember, what most readers want to know is: “Who does…”

The most important parts of any sentence are the subject (the doer) and the verb (which describes the action). So these should go at the front of a sentence. The next most important part of a sentence is the object (the thing done to). Ideally it comes after the subject and verb.

This structure is called “active” because it expresses an action.

If either the subject is missing or the sentence doesn’t follow this natural action-based order, this is called “passive”. If your sentences are passive, your readers will struggle to make sense of them—no matter how clear the information is in your mind.

Here is a simple sentence in the “active voice”:

The PCO drafts legislation

Now let’s break that down, and then compare it with the “passive voice”:

Example 3

Active example 3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


In turning an active sentence into a passive one, the writer must do 3 things:

  • swap the subject and object (ie, put the all-important subject in the lesser object position, and the less important object in the subject position)
  • add parts to the verb—a “past participle” ending (-ed or -en) plus a form of the verb “to be” (is, are, was, were, am, have been, will be, etc): drafts becomes is drafted
  • add a “by” to the passive subject: the PCO becomes by the PCO.

This new word order makes the action less direct and weakens the sentence.

And the extra words or parts makes the whole sentence more complex.

But most often, the passive “voice” omits the who altogether:

Example 4

PASSIVE:

Legislation is drafted
What is done
(object) (verb)

In this form (let’s call it the “subject-less passive”), there is no sense of “who”.

Example 5

Mobile phones are unable to be switched on before takeoff.

Example 6

Error: Your connection was unable to be connected.

Example 7

The report will be tabled tomorrow.

Example 8

No correspondence will be entered into.

Example 9

Your complaint is acknowledged and will be looked into.

Problems with the passive voice

Readers can handle the odd passive construction—especially in simple sentences. But when sentences sprout multiple clauses, the buried-subject problem becomes more acute. Readers may start to get confused.

And when sentences become a string of passives, the reader loses interest—as you probably did with Example 2 above. If it’s an important document they might persevere, though there’s a risk they will misunderstand the crucial messages.

How to write using the active voice

  1. Think one “clause” at a time.
  2. Write it in this order: “who + does + what (+ when/where/how)”.
  3. Then write another active clause.
  4. Then another.
  5. Use “linking words” (eg, while, because, although) to join 2—or at most 3—clauses that express a single idea.
  6. If you find your subject repeated, swap it for a “pronoun” (he, she, it, they, who).

This might seem a cumbersome writing process. But it’s more precise—and ultimately more reader-friendly—than throwing actions higgledy-piggledy into a sprawling sentence. It’s a good way to order your thoughts too. Very soon you’ll find it becomes second nature.

How to turn passive into active

Note, in all the examples below, the verb is in bold and other crucial sentence parts (eg, subject, object, indirect object) are in italic.

 1. If you know the subject and object, invert them so the sentence tells “who does what”. And turn the passive verb into an active one:

Example 10

PASSIVE: Both of these topics will be asked about by me at the post-Cabinet news conference with the Prime Minister.

ACTIVE: I will ask the Prime Minister about both these topics at the post-Cabinet news conference.

2. Add a generic subject, such as you, we, someone, people, nobody, staff, the author, the document, the project, the company, the department. This is possible with almost every passive sentence. Here are some active structures from this very document (generic subjects in italics) that could have been passive:

Example 11

ACTIVE: Readers can handle the odd passive construction.

PASSIVE: The odd passive construction is easily handled.

Example 12

ACTIVE: You have to know which subject the author intended.

PASSIVE: The intended subject has to be known.

Example 13

ACTIVE: Most often people write passively because ...

PASSIVE: Most often documents are written passively because ...

Example 14

ACTIVE: We make this passive by inverting subject and object.

PASSIVE: This is turned into passive by inverting subject and object.

 3. Turn the *passive verb into an active equivalent:

Example 15

PASSIVE: That’s 80% of the time our vital messages are not being transmitted.

ACTIVE: That’s 80% of the time that our vital messages are not getting through.

* “Passive verbs” are always ones that take an object (called “transitive” in grammar). You transmit a message and enjoy a meal. “Intransitive” verbs do not take an object. A message doesn’t transmit by itself. And you cannot just enjoy without an object (despite the increasingly common exhortation of waiters when they pass you your meal). So there is little danger of using intransitive verbs in the passive voice.

 4. Stop and think what the author (you or another) is really trying to say, and start the sentence again. But this time follow the “who did what” order.

“Active passive”—compounding the no subject problem

Beware of following a passive verb with an active one in the same sentence. This compounds the no-subject problem. The extra verbs will most often be a participle (-ing form) or an infinitive (to form):

Example 16

PASSIVE: Content in Documentum can be made more accessible by linking to it from the intranet.

ACTIVE: You can make content in Documentum more accessible by linking to it from the intranet.

Sometimes a compound passive structure masquerades as an active one:

Example 17

PASSIVE: A great deal of work is at present going on to try to improve literacy and numeracy.

ACTIVE: [Unnamed person/organisation] is working hard to try to improve literacy and numeracy.

“Work” is a false subject—the real doer is missing. As soon as we add a real subject and active verb (someone is working), the extra verbs (“to try” and “to improve”) become active.

When is passive “better”?

In a plain language context, “better” always means clearer for the reader—not easier for the writer.

Here are the only situations in which you should consider using a passive (verbs in bold and subjects in bold italic):

 1. We don’t know who or what is doing the action:

Example 18

PASSIVE: My house was burgled last night.

ACTIVE: [???] burgled my house last night...

Although, even here, we could use a generic subject: “Someone burgled my house…”

2. Readers don’t need to know who or what is doing the action—the object is more important:

Example 19

PASSIVE: Up to 10 full-time men’s sevens players could be contracted by the end of 2018.

ACTIVE: The NZ Rugby Union could contract up to 10 full-time men’s sevens players by the end of 2018.

 3. The process (verb) is all important and the doer is self-evident from the verb:

Example 20

PASSIVE: Rice is grown in China.

ACTIVE: Farmers grow rice in China.

PASSIVE: Gilmour’s wife has died, four years after terminal brain cancer was diagnosed.

ACTIVE: Gilmour’s wife has died, four years after doctors diagnosed terminal brain cancer.

 4. What looks like a passive verb is actually a descriptive adjective:

Example 21

PASSIVE: The door was locked (so I couldn’t get in).

ACTIVE: The door was locked (by the caretaker).

You can’t always avoid the passive. It is useful in the instances shown above. But in most instances you can turn a weak passive into a strong active with a little thought and effort. And that’s always better for the reader.

Active challenge

Research shows most people who write workplace documents use passive verbs 70% of the time and active verbs 30% of the time. (And 70% of those passive verbs have no stated subject.) As these writers move up in the world of academia, business, or public service, their percentage rises to 80/20. This means 80% of the time their vital messages may not be getting through.

You can make this transformation:

  • as you write
  • by recognising your own unnecessary passives and turning them into actives wherever possible
  • by influencing others to write actively (eg, when peer-reviewing or editing).

Always bear in mind the mantra “who does what”. And always consider the readers’ needs.

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