Monday, October 11, 2010

Voice, Part 1: Active Is Not Necessarily Better Than Passive

Too often, I hear that active voice is superior to passive voice. The truth is, however, active is not necessarily stronger, clearer, economical, or better than passive.

In this situation, the passive sentence is stronger.

  • Active: Would you please give this book to your manager.
  • Passive: This book must be given to your manager.

In the next pair, the passive sentence is clearer.

  • Active: The data will undergo an examination.
  • Passive: The data will be examined by the analyst.

In the example below, the passive sentence is more economical.

  • Active: Carmen, Charlie, Nick, and Victor reviewed the document. (8 words)
  • Passive: The document was reviewed. (4 words)

Finally, the passive sentence below is better than the active for all the above reasons: it is stronger, clearer, and briefer. The passive sentence immediately focuses on the safety issue, while the active sentence is clunky and wishy-washy.

  • Active: We assume that someone in Engineering will attempt to correct the problem with the relief valve before one of the production team staff members places the compressor in production.
  • Passive: The problem with the relief valve must be corrected before the compressor is placed in production.

I will continue this series on voice in subsequent posts.

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