Column: Active and passive voices
Question: “I hear a lot about the active and passive voices, and how the active is preferable. I seem to remember discussing them in school, but it’s been a while. Could you do a quick refresher course?”
Answer: One of the first things they drill into you in journalism school is to USE ACTIVE VOICE. The second thing is always to triple check the spelling of a source’s name … but that’s another topic.
Why is active voice stressed so early and so often? Well, as you may guess from its name, active voice is great for when you want to highlight the action early in a sentence. And with limited space on the page and limited attention spans from your readers, you need to make every word count.
We’ll be using two words to talk about active and passive voice for the rest of the column: “agent” and “patient.” To keep things simple, the “agent” is the person or object performing an action, and the “patient” is the person or object being acted upon.
Consider the following sentences:
“Team USA scores a goal!”
“Germany is scored on by Team USA!”
The first is active and the second is passive. Which conveys the action better? The first sentence does, because the subject and the agent are the same. In the second sentence, Team USA is still the agent, but it’s relegated to the end of the sentence while the patient, Germany, is moved to the subject. In active voice we want our subjects performing the action.
Now, there are some good reasons to use the passive voice. For one, you’re not Earnest Hemingway. The passive voice is also used when you don’t know, or don’t want to mention, the agent. Consider this sentence: “Three suspicious fires were started overnight.” The fires didn’t start themselves, but we don’t know who did.
Passive voice is also useful when the patient is more important than the agent. If someone asks you how your leg was broken, you might say, “I was hit by a car,” rather than, “A car hit me.” Either version is acceptable but, hey, forget that other guy – you’re the one with the broken leg.