Choose active vs. passive voice strategically

schoolmarmNo grammatical construction raises the ire of writing “experts” like the passive. Geoff Pullum (a regular contributor to Lingua Franca at the Chronicle of Higher Education) provided two marvelous examples in a research paper titled “Fear and loathing of the English passive.”

The passive voice liquidates and buries the active individual, along with most of the awful truth. Our massed, scientific, and bureaucratic society is so addicted to it that you must constantly alert yourself against its drowsy, impersonal pomp.

and

A sentence written in passive voice is the shifty desperado who tries to win the gunfight by shooting the sheriff in the back, stealing his horse, and sneaking out of town.

Take a second to let those sink in. We are talking about sentence structure, aren’t we?

Pullum’s research article concluded by noting that advice to avoid passives is “bogus” and often provided by people who are “commonly hopeless at distinguishing passives from actives.” As I’ve written here before, any “expert” who focuses on limiting your stylistic choices should be ignored.  Real experts have many tools to accomplish their goals. It’s the same with expert writers. Language allows us multiple ways of saying the same thing for a reason. Every style is appropriate in some context–otherwise it wouldn’t exist.

Now that I’ve acknowledged the vitriol surrounding passive voice, let’s move on to some guidance backed by research. Here are two versions of the same fictional news story from the Stroppy Editor:

  1. Scientists at the University of Birmingham have discovered a drug that cures AIDS. Clinical trials involving 900 people with AIDS have shown it to work. Just three injections completely cured all 900 of them. The healthcare regulator is likely to approve the drug for clinical use within months.
  2. A drug that cures AIDS has been discovered by scientists at the University of Birmingham. It has been shown to work by clinical trials involving 900 people with AIDS. All 900 of them were completely cured by just three injections. The drug is likely to be approved by the healthcare regulator for clinical use within months.

Version 2 is superior if the writer’s goal is to convey a message to readers clearly and efficiently. Yet each of its four sentences is constructed in passive voice (i.e., …been discovered…been shown…were…cured…be approved…). Readers of Version 2 can’t miss the focus of the passage: a new drug.  Not so in Version 1, where all four sentences use active voice but focus on different things.

It turns out that passive voice is useful in some situations–like maintaining thematic flow. Active voice is useful in others–like establishing a personal style or tone. Your choice should be strategic. That means based on the rhetorical context: your purpose, your reader’s needs, and the content of your message.

Active/passive voice is explained in Chapter 13 of Revising Professional Writing in Science and Technology, Business, and the Social Sciences (3rd edition). If you’re using that book in an academic setting, you’ll find many exercises in that chapter, requiring you to distinguish between active and passive voice and then choose between them for strategic reasons. Here are some additional resources to help you master the choice:

  • a sample document, including both an original and revised version
  • a brief video tutorial
  • a list of research articles supporting my guidance

Enter feedback in the comments below if I can provide you with other resources.

Sample Document

Review the document below. It is based on one from Susan M. Heathfield for About.com on Human Resources, but it has been adapted specifically to show how pros use active and passive voice in workplace documents.

  • Writer: a hiring manager at a publishing company
  • Readers: an applicant for a sales manager position
  • Bottom line message: while the applicant was rejected for the management position, the company would like to interview her for a different position

Here’s a revised version of the letter, with strategically chosen active/passive voice.

Video Tutorial

The letter is included in this ~13-minute video about voice in workplace documents.

Related Readings

There are several posts here at Pros Write that deal with passive vs. active voice. Just enter “passive” in the search field near the top of this page. If you want to see the research supporting my guidance, you might begin with the following sources.

Kies, D. (1985). Some stylistic features of business and technical writing: The functions of passive voice, nominalization, and agency. Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, 15, 299-308.

Millar, N., Budgell, B. & Fuller, K. (2013) ‘Use the active voice whenever possible’: The impact of style guidelines in medical journals. Applied Linguistics, 34(4), 393–414.

Pullum, G.K. (2014). Fear and loathing of the English passive. Language and Communication, 37, 60-74.

Riley, K. (1991). Passive voice and the rhetorical role in scientific writing. Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, 21, 239-257.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s