Use the Active Voice to Improve Your Writing

use the active voice

Use the active voice. It’s bolder.

You can use the active voice to make your writing clearer. You can also use it in your speech to take responsibility for your actions. (Finally, you’ll be an upstanding member of the community again!)

What’s the Active Voice?

The active voice shows that the subject of the sentence does the verb’s action. Consider the following examples:

  • We serve dinner until 9 pm.*
  • The girl mowed the lawn.
  • Mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy.

*subject; verb; direct object

In each case, the subject (here, the “doer of the action”) performs the action of the verb. The object “receives” the action.

Should You Use the Active Voice or the Passive Voice?

Well, that depends, because the passive voice shifts the focus of the sentence. Sometimes that’s good, sometimes not.

  • Dinner is served by us until 9 pm.
  • Oats are eaten by mares and oats are eaten by does and ivy is eaten by little lambs.

Is the second example ridiculous? Yes. See when it’s okay to use the passive voice.

Passive constructions may leave out the doer of the action. Sometimes this sounds fine, other times not.

  • Dinner is served until 9 pm. (fine)
  • Oats are eaten and oats are eaten and ivy is eaten. (terrible)

When to Use the Active Voice

There are several reasons to use the active voice:

  • The active voice is direct. Key information appears early in the sentence. In addition, there’s no “clutter” from extra words.
  • The active voice is transparent. When you use the active voice, you include the doer of the action. Readers don’t have to wonder who’s doing what.
  • The active voice creates trust and conveys responsibility. So you can use the active voice in your writing to boost credibility.

Does this last one sound like a stretch? Consider the examples below.

  • Active: “Honey, I never should have sold your grandmother’s diamond jewelry to pay off my gambling debts.”
  • Passive: “Honey, your grandmother’s diamond jewelry never should have been sold to pay off my gambling debts.”

“But the guy’ll be in the doghouse either way!” you may say. Perhaps. But people at least admit responsibility when they use the active voice. They dodge it completely with a passive construction.

use the active voice

Using the passive voice doesn’t make you Stalin, but the guilty and the weak do seem to prefer it to the active voice.

The Weak and the Guilty Don’t Like the Active Voice

If you need a real-life example of how the passive voice is the go-to choice for the weak and the guilty, then I’d like to present Exhibit A, Your Honor.

Jaime Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan Chase, faced criticism surrounding the controversial bonuses that executives at his company got after it received taxpayer money via the TARP program.

His comment in a CNBC interview about the controversy? “We know mistakes were made.”

By failing to use the active voice, Dimon shifted responsibility to some nameless person or thing.

The passive voice can be especially detrimental to writing—it is the grammatical equivalent of passing the buck. The active voice makes writing more accurate and precise.

—Mara Naselli, editor and instructor at the University of Chicago Graham School

Use the active voice most of the time. Your writing will be clearer as a result. (And people will respect you for taking responsibility for your actions.)

If you like this article, then check out RedLine’s April 2012 white paper Why Good Copy Is Good Business.

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