Matthew Devitt is a freelance copywriter based in Nürnberg, Germany. Here is a collection of articles, opinion pieces and blogs. Visit www.matthewdevitt.com
Active Voice Vs. Passive Voice - What's the Difference?
“Verbs are the most important of all your tools. They push the sentence forward and give it momentum. Active verbs push hard; passive verbs tug fitfully.”
- William Zinsser
In the world of copywriting and content production, it’s likely that you’ve heard the phrase active voice. If you have, then you’ve probably also heard the phrase passive voice.
But between active voice and passive voice - which one is better? Which one should you be using? And how do you know the best way apply each style?
Well, let’s jump right in.
Now - I will start by saying this: if you want your writing to be more engaging, more interesting, and more punchy - you should generally be using 'active voice'.
So what is active voice? Well, it's when the subject of your sentence is performing an action, expressed through a verb: “I threw the ball.”
The opposite of active voice is passive voice. This is when the subject undergoes the action of the verb: “The ball was thrown by me.”
Both sentences are saying the same thing, and they’re both describing an event in the past tense.
But active voice is more direct, more energetic - and engages the reader with the action:
“I threw the ball.” sounds like it just happened. And it’s easy to picture it in your mind.
Passive voice is less direct, and sounds much less specific:
“The ball was thrown by me.” When? Just then? Yesterday? Two weeks ago? It might have just happened - but it doesn’t really sound like it.
Want some more direct examples? Check these out.
Active: The rookie won the game!
Passive: The game was won by the rookie.
Active: The shaking bank manager pointed a gun directly at the robber.
Passive: A gun was pointed directly at the robber by the shaking bank manager
Active: The whole staff threw her a surprise party!
Passive: A surprise party was thrown for her by the whole staff.
I like to think of active voice as putting your writing 'on the front foot'. It adds more energy, it’s easier to understand, and it generally uses fewer words. Plus - it brings your readers along for the ride.
Take a look at Nike's world-famous slogan written in passive voice:
Not quite as effective is it? The oomph is gone and it sounds deflated. Plus it’s WAY too wordy.
For slogans and advertising that want to encourage energy and action - active voice is generally the best way to go.
Is there a place for passive voice?
Of course. Apologetic celebrities and politicians have been using it forever. Passive voice is less direct, and so it can be an effective way to deflect blame in an ambiguous way.
“I made a mistake”
“Mistakes were made”
Sound familiar? One statement is accepting direct responsibility - and the other is not.
Also, passive voice can be handy if the subject and the action is more important than the person doing it - or you’re trying to emphasise a fact.
Active: We throw away 30% of all food cooked in restaurants.
Passive: 30% of all food cooked in restaurants is thrown away.
Active: An unknown gunman has killed 3 people in a restaurant.
Passive: 3 people were killed in a restaurant by an unknown gunman.
Active: Someone stole my brand new car yesterday.
Passive: My brand new car was stolen yesterday.
In my option, the passive voice examples are better. They’re making the action the main focus of the sentence, not the (unknown) people doing it. If you’re writing a news story and the main thrust is that 3 people have been killed - lead with that fact.
So how can you check your writing for active voice?
Luckily, there is a fool-proof way to check your writing as you sharpen your skills. And it’s free.
Using the Hemingway Editor, you can copy and paste your text and it’ll highlight uses of passive voice in green. You can see what I mean using the examples from this very blog post:
So, in summary…
Active voice is a great way to make your writing more focussed and energetic. It’s also one of the best ways to say the most from the smallest amount of words.
Passive voice can be an effective way to use ambiguity, or to highlight facts over people. In certain situations - it can be very effective.
And naturally, once you master both styles - you can combine them to great effect.
If you want to get your readers more involved in your writing - try and use active voice as often as you can.
Conversely, if you’re in the public eye and busted doing something naughty - hire a PR manager that knows passive voice very well.