Give your writing harmony and pace

Skillfully blending the passive voice into your prose lends it variety and spice.

In his 1918 classic, The Elements of Style, E.B. White wrote: “The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive.” So why do sentences like these so often appear in business correspondence: “It has been decided…”; “Actions recommended included…”; “Decisions were deferred…”; “Electrical service will be interrupted….”

This passive form of communication sounds more like a horoscope than written information about who, what, when, where, how, and why. Passive-voice writing can leave readers wondering whether the writer simply didn't know the facts, or didn't want to reveal them.

Since the passive voice so often is the habitat of political documents, past due notices, and other bad news, writers lose credibility from the start by adopting this tone for their business correspondence. In contrast, habitually writing in the active voice builds credibility. For example, “The accounting department has discovered a shortfall in our travel budget” sounds more authoritative and honest than “A shortfall has been discovered in our travel budget.” Because it is so straightforward, active construction speaks more directly to the reader. This makes it easier to secure the reader's participation and trust.

Does this mean that writers should simply abandon use of the passive voice in writing entirely? Not at all.

Skillfully blending the passive voice into your prose lends it variety and spice. It can:

  • Quickly impart non-essential information without shifting the focus from the action
  • Vary the pace and tone of a story, article, memo, or letter In creative writing, it can be an effective literary device to underscore the subject's powerlessness.

For example, consider how effectively Ernest Hemingway shifts from the passive to the active voice in his article “Six men become tankers,” published in the Kansas City Star on April 17, 1918:

“…All of the men taken were of draft age and were given a letter from Col. I. C. Welborn of the Tank Corps, authorizing any local board to immediately induct them into service.

“For several days the men prepare for the coming offensive. The tanks are brought up behind the first line trenches under cover of darkness and the crews crawl into the close, oil-smelling steel shells.

“The machine gunners, artillery men and engineers get into their cramped positions, the commander crawls into his seat, the engines clatter and pound and the great steel monster clanks lumberingly forward.”

The subtle shift from the passive to the active illustrates how a powerful entity--the military--has placed the men into a machine to conduct the work of war.

Using active and passive voice

So how can those of us who do not have the writing talents of Hemingway learn the judicious use of active and passive voice?

The first test always is to read your work aloud, to either a trusted editor or to yourself. Muttering is perfectly acceptable here. If you come to a sentence that sounds awkward to your ears, try switching its construction to see if that's where the problem lies.

Because switching from the passive to the active voice usually means specifying who is speaking and the action, this device often will highlight the missing information that needs to be supplied.

Once you have mastered the nuances of passive and active voice, you may find that the best writing contains both, as in William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream:

“Love looks not with the eyes, But with the mind; And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.”