Writing in English: active/passive voice

Writing clearly in English, even though it might be a foreign language for you, is a vital skill that can earn you the respect of your colleagues and superiors. Because not everyone has time to read more in English (the best way to become a better writer), you can learn some easy techniques to improve your writing. Here is one:

Write in the active voice

English Writing course UtrechtThe active voice. It’s the way we normally think–it’s like chronological order for reading. Subject…verb…object. This is the information we want to find in the sentence, and we want to find it as quickly as possible, in the order that we are expecting it. It’s so natural, so normal to write in the active voice that I am surprised when I read writing that is almost entirely in the passive voice. At some point, my Dutch students (and some foreign students as well) were taught that you have to write in the passive voice to be formal.

Passive voice is exactly the opposite of the active voice in terms of structure: Object…verb…(subject). Passive voice is frequently used as a way to remove the subject from the sentence. While much can be said about the passive voice, I will limit myself here to discussing why non-native speakers (namely Dutch) should avoid using it as much as they do and try to return to a simpler sentence structure.

Many Dutch professionals who are highly-educated and otherwise very capable in English insist on writing in the passive voice, thinking this is what makes their writing formal.

Passive Voice Misconceptions

Students have told me that they remember their high school English teacher instructing them that passive voice is formal in English, so if they want to write formally, they have to write in the passive voice. Whether or not this oversimplified message was the intended one or not, many Dutch professionals who are highly-educated and otherwise very capable in English insist on writing in the passive voice, thinking this is what makes their writing formal. As a result of this misconception, they do linguistic acrobatics to make as many sentences as possible passive. Then, when these professionals get the difficult-to-swallow feedback that their writing is unreadable from a colleague or even a boss, they have to try to unlearn this bad habit.

To avoid this embarrassment, we need to bring a lot more nuance into this message.

The most formal writing is usually also the most unreadable.

It’s true that the more formal the writing is, the more passive voice you will find. However, the most formal writing is usually also the most unreadable– have you ever tried to read a legal contract? Unless you are a lawyer educated at an English-speaking university who must write legal contracts in English, your goal is to create writing that is readable and clear, with an appropriate level of formality (or register).American English registerAppropriate means using the passive voice when necessary — not all the time. I will not tell you that you won’t write in the passive voice ever–that’s not possible. I will tell you that you should change your default way of writing from passive to active. Generally, writing is easier to read when there is more active voice.

What about formality?

Just because you see passive voice more frequently in more formal writing doesn’t necessarily mean that this structure is what causes a piece of writing to be formal or informal. Rather, passive voice can be used to put emphasis on different parts of the sentence, to follow the information principle, or to avoid taking responsibility, among other things. There are reasons to use the passive voice, but that’s just it: you should have a reason for using it. It should not be your default.

passive voice English

You can make your writing more formal by looking at a number of factors: the kinds/amount of verbs you use, the register of the nouns you use, the concreteness of your subject, the structure of your quotations, etc. I teach students in my writing course that an appropriate level of formality is a balance between formality and readability, where clarity trumps everything else. Because of the confusing structure of the passive voice, it is generally less readable than the simple, natural structure of the active voice.

Why passive voice is harder to read and write

Passive voice is also more difficult to use than the active voice. In order to create a sentence in the passive voice, you have to first make sure that you don’t have a (grammatical) subject. Since many people can’t identify the subject in their sentences in the first place, this goes wrong from the very beginning. Then you have to make sure you have the correct verb tense translation from Dutch to English, which can be tricky. Because the structure is more complicated, passive voice sentences created by non-native speakers tend to be grammatically incorrect, which makes the message even more obscure.

There are reasons to use the passive voice, briefly mentioned above. Being able to use the passive voice correctly as a non-native speaker is a skill that you can learn. For now, look closely at your passive voice sentences and decide if you have a reason for using the passive–if not, ask yourself if an active structure wouldn’t be clearer. I will detail the reasons for using the passive in another post.

Things to Remember:

Writing in the active voice is not news–it’s not innovative or challenging. It’s just normal.

Passive voice does not necessarily equal better or more formal, and it’s not used as frequently in English as you might think.

Q. I used the following passive voice constructions in this post. Can you figure out why? Answers coming in the post on why we use the passive voice.

1. At some point, my Dutch students were taught that you have to write in the passive voice to be formal.

2. Passive voice is frequently used as a way to remove the subject from the sentence.

3. While much can be said about the passive voice,…

4. Rather, passive voice can be used to put emphasis on different parts of the sentence,…

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2 Comments

Filed under Business English, Writing in English

2 responses to “Writing in English: active/passive voice

  1. Pingback: Writing in English: Why we use the passive voice | Premier Taaltraining English Blog

  2. Pingback: Writing in English: How to get the passive voice right | Premier Taaltraining English Blog

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