You switch between passive and active voice all the time, without even thinking about it. But the choice can have a dramatic impact on how your message gets across.
When to use the active voice
Most sentences are active and follow a subject + verb + objectconstruction. That’s just a fancy grammatical way of saying that the woman (subject) did something (verb) to a fly (object).
Another simple example of an active sentence is the cat sat on the mat. The cat (subject) is doing the sitting (verb). The mat is the object because it is having something done to it – that is, it’s being sat on. It doesn’t have any choice in the matter.
When to use the passive voice
Use the passive to put more emphasis on the object. The construction isobject + the verb ‘to be’ + verb + by + subject.
The verb ‘to be’ can take many forms – am, is, are, was, were, has been, had been, have been, will be and so on.
Why would you want to do this? Basically, for one of three reasons:
1. The subject is less important:
A woman’s body was found by a jogger.
In this example we’re more interested in the victim than the person who found her.
2. The subject is unknown.
The bank was robbed (by, um, bank robbers).
Here we actually edit out the subject completely, along with the word ‘by’. This editing of the facts is why passive can be useful, especially in news reporting.
3. We know perfectly well who the subject is, but we don’t want to say.
The toilets were not cleaned properly (by the cleaners, presumably).
Here we want to avoid pointing the finger of blame directly, so we use passive and leave out the subject. It’s a handy way of avoiding responsibility as well:
A mistake has been made (by…me!).
Perhaps this is why it is overused in business and legal documents…
The downside of passive is that it can make your sentences sound a bit formal, pompous and vague. It’s designed to fudge the issue. If you want your reader to clearly and easily understand your message (and if you don’t, why are you writing to him?), avoid the passive.
Click here for more on active and passive sentences