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Active and passive voice

 

Techniques > Use of language > Syntax > Active and passive voice

Method | Example | Discussion | See also

 

Method

Active

Create an active verb phrase by making the subject active in respect of the verb. This usually puts the subject at the front of the phrase, before the verb.

Use this active sense to create simple and understandable communications.

The 'active' sense is increased if you are more specific about who is doing what. It may also have the subject performing the action.

Passive

Create a passive verb phrase by making the subject the passive recipient of the verb. This typically moves the subject towards the end of the phrase. Rather than performing the action, the subject often experiences the action.

Increase passivity by being vague and non-specific. Talk in the third person, even when you are speaking of your own opinion. Use generalized nouns and verbs. Use floppy language.

Use the passive voice to move attention away from the subject, for example when you want to avoid blame. It may also be used to create a sense of formality, for example in written reports.

Example

The driver won the race. (active)

The race was won by the driver. (passive)

It has been noted that some departments are  not fully effective. (vague passive)

I think marketing is not working. (specific active)

Discussion

In an active voice, the subject is active, thus in 'The dog chased the cat', the dog is doing the chasing. In the passive voice, the subject is the passive recipient, thus 'The cat was chased by the dog'. Note the use of the tell-tale 'by' here.

Active voice seeks clarity, whilst the passive voice seeks to hide and avoid responsibility.

Active phrasing is usually easier to understand as it is simpler in construction. This simplicity is perhaps why it is more common in spoken language, where shorter forms tend to be used.

Passive voice is a more archaic form that is more common in written words than in the spoken language. These both tend to make it appear more formal than the active voice.

See also

 

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