Write Strong, Active Voice Sentences
This article will teach you how to write strong, active sentences by changing passive voice sentences to active voice.
Definition of active voice
English verbs have two voices: active voice and passive voice.
In active voice, the person acting is clear: “The manager wrote the report yesterday.” The person acting is the manager.
In passive voice, the person acting isn’t specified: “The report was written yesterday.” It could have been written by the secretary, the manager, or Albert Einstein—we don’t know.
The sentence is still in passive voice if the actor is later in the sentence: “The report was written yesterday by the manager.”
Why use active voice?
Passive voice makes the writing unclear by keeping the identity of the actor secret. At times the identity is obvious, but often it isn’t. Even if the reader has an idea of whom the actor is, passive voice creates weak sentences that don’t communicate immediately and emphatically.
This report is made up entirely of passive voice sentences:
|The pipeline was inspected and was found to have cracks at three joints. The decision was made to replace the three joints and a contractor was engaged. After the work was completed, the leaks stopped.|
Change the passive voice sentences to active voice unless you have a good reason to use passive voice:
|The foreman inspected the pipeline and discovered cracks at three joints. The plant maintenance manager decided to replace the three joints and had the contracting department engage a contractor. After the contractor completed the work, the leaks stopped.|
Now the reader knows who discovered the cracks, who decided to replace them, who engaged the contractor, and who did the work. When issues come up about the pipeline and what happened, the reader won’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to discover who was involved.
Two special cases of active voice sentences that look passive
Two ways of writing sentences are active even though they look like the text contains no actor:
Sentences with “you understood.”
This sentence doesn’t look like it has an actor, but the actor is “you understood,” meaning we know that the subject is “you,” even though the writer doesn’t use “you” in the sentence. This is an example:
Sentences with one subject and two verbs joined by “and.”
The second instance of an active sentence that may look like the sentence has no actor is when the sentence has two verbs with one subject. This is an example:
This sentence is also in active voice because “you understood” applies to both the first action and second action:
One special case of passive voice even with a stated actor
A sentence is considered in passive voice if the actor follows the verb:
Use passive voice sparingly
Business writers should use the passive voice very sparingly. Use passive voice only when you do not know the actor, you want to hide the identity of the actor, or the actor is not important to the meaning of the sentence.
How to change passive voice to active voice
To change passive voice to active, identify the performer of the action. If the performer is in a “by the” phrase, move the performer to the subject position, just before the verb. If the writer did not name a performer, choose a subject that fits the context. “The test results will be announced next week” easily becomes “We will announce the test results next week” or “The researchers will announce the test results next week.”
Avoid mixing active and passive voice in the same sentence. The first half of this sentence is active, but the second half is passive: “We found the lost contract, and the client was notified immediately.” Instead, use active voice throughout: “We found the lost contract and notified the client immediately.”
Business writers should prefer active voice for most documents. Active voice is more direct and concise than passive voice. Passive voice is often awkward and evasive. Readers may interpret passive voice as an attempt to avoid admitting responsibility, as in the following example:
Use active voice at all times unless you have a good reason to use passive.
Practice Using Active Voice
You may go through a practice activity that will help you learn how to change passive voice sentences to active voice sentences