Active Voice vs. Passive Voice

What’s the difference, and why is it important in business and technical writing?

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Many aspiring technical and non-fiction writers struggle with the use of active voice vs. passive voice.

When we communicate orally with our friends and family, we use passive voice all the time without even realizing. Passive voice works in oral communication, because we’re engaged enough in the conversation or subject matter for our brains to process it immediately.

But when it comes to written communication, active voice is the preferred method. The simplicity of active voice keeps the reader engaged and is less likely to cause confusion.

First, a review of sentence structure.

Basic English sentence structure is a subject noun and a verb, where the subject noun performs the action indicated by the verb.

When you look at a sentence, find the active verb. Then, ask yourself who or what is performing the action. That is the subject noun.

“He reads.”

Read is the active verb. Who or what reads? He is the subject doing the reading.

In English writing, active voice is a sentence in which the subject of the sentence directly performs the action. Therefore “he reads,” is a basic active voice sentence, because the subject “he” is the one directly performing the action “reads.”

Of course, most sentences aren’t basic. In addition to the subject and the verb, most sentences contain prepositions or objects. For example:

“He reads books.”

He (subject) reads (action verb) books (object of the action).

“He reads in the park.”

He (subject) reads (action verb) in the park (prepositional phrase).

“He reads books in the park.”

He (subject) reads (action verb) books (object) in the park (prepositional phrase).

These are all active voice sentences, because the subject is directly performing the action on an object in a prepositional circumstance.

Of course, in oral conversation, we could jumble this sentence around in a few ways:

“The books are being read in the park.”

The books (object) are being read (action verb) in the park (preposition).

In this case, the action verb is still “read,” but the subject (the person reading the books) is implied. After all, the books are not reading themselves.

Active Voice in Written Communication

Let’s take all of this together to form an example of an active voice sentence one might read in technical documentation:

“Only qualified technicians should perform the task.”

An example of the same sentence in passive voice:

“The task should only be performed by qualified technicians.”

In both cases, the action verb is “should,” and subject of the verb (the who or what performing the action verb) is “technicians.” In active voice, we get right to the point by placing the subject before its verb, and the sentence uses seven words.

In oral communication, our brains can process the passive version of this sentence. But in written communication, our brains take an extra split second to process it. This extra processing time, as small as it seems, adds up and reduces reader engagement.

Active voice in written communication keeps things simple and engaging.

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