Why We Kill the Passive Voice

Why should you care about writing?

Want to get a job or attend grad school? Write credible, convincing active voice resumes and cover letters. Why? The active voice presents you and your actions forcefully and powerfully. It depicts you at the active center of each sentence, not as a passive bystander. It reduces wordiness, indirect phrasing, and keeps your core message clear, clean, and simple. Research any job application website like those below. You’ll find 100% agreement on writing active-voice prose. Here are 2 examples:
  • Resume writing 1
  • Resume writing 2
  • Writing specialists have urged active-voice writing for a century. Strunk and White explain "the active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive." "Be a verb activist whenever you can," suggests DeWitt Scott.

    Why historians hate passives

  • Passives can occur in the present tense (is, are constructions) but occur more commonly in the past tense (was, were constructions). "Mistakes were made." "Help was not given." We avoid the passive voice in historical writing because it ignores or masks causation. In history we must explain precisely who did what to whom. The boring passive drags down our narrative, but more seriously it avoids the essential concern of history-- causation.

    Who likes the passive?

  • Politicians, seeking to avoid responsibility or blame, love the passive. Examples: The Bush II administration admitted improperly altering a report documenting large racial and ethnic disparities in health care. "There was a mistake made," Tommy G. Thompson, the secretary of health and human services, told Congress on Feb. 10, 2004. In April 2007, Bush II attorney general Alberto Gonzalez, in the midst of multiple justice department scandals, said "Mistakes were made."
  • You get the picture. Using the passive hides the truth. WHO made the mistakes? The passive voice well serves those seeking to conceal or withhold vital information. Not surprisingly, lawyers, politicians, and advertisers find the passive very congenial.

    Bottom line: Write active-voice sentences!

  • Let's learn how we kill the passive and render it active.

    Still need more convincing? No good writer likes the passive!

    1. Passive Voice, About.com Homework Help by Kenneth Beare Also good tips for those writing English as a Second Language (ISL).
    2. Passive to Active Transformations by Kenneth Beare Practice turning passive into active sentences.
    3. : "The worst offense of the passive voice is when business interests, government agencies, or the military (who must get weary of this accusation) use the passive voice to avoid responsibility for actions taken. Thus 'Cigarette ads were designed to appeal especially to children' places the burden on the ads — as opposed to 'We designed the cigarette ads to appeal especially to children,' in which 'we' accepts responsibility." Likewise, historians cannot avoid identifying and assigning responsibility for past actions." From The Passive Voice: Its Proper and Improper Uses, Capital Community College, Hartford, CT
    4. "The passive is particularly useful (even recommended) in two situations: 1. When it is more important to draw our attention to the person or thing acted upon: The English instructor was killed during the early morning hours. 2. When the actor in the situation is not important: The aurora borealis can be observed in the early morning hours."
    5. "The most basic kind of sentence follows what is called the SVO pattern. It begins with a subject (S), something performing an action; then it has a verb (V), which is the action; then it has an object (O), something that receives the action. (Not all sentences have an O.)" [From Recognizing the Passive Voice, Arizona State University Writing Center]
    6. Passive voice slows down your writing and makes it wordy. Imagine reading a whole paragraph of sentences that begin with "There is," "There are," "It is" or "They are." You can probably tell how that would get boring and monotonous after awhile. Using more active verbs eliminates wordiness and makes what you have written more interesting to read."