People and words

Active or passive?

If you were typing this sentence, you’d probably get told off by your word processor.

The reason is that the makers of applications such as Microsoft Word don’t like the passive voice. And Word shows its dislike by underlining the sentence with a green squiggly line. It wants you to use the active voice: your word processor probably doesn’t tell you off for this sentence.

Before you ask, the passive voice is a language construction in which the usual object appears as the subject, and the usual subject is an object or absent altogether. For example, ‘the ball is caught by Joe’ is passive and ‘Joe caught the ball’ is active.

Much maligned

The passive voice is much maligned. Only yesterday I read in a manual that prescribes writers what to do: ‘Change passive sentence constructions to active.’ Other style manuals give similar advice.

There are good reasons for following this advice. To name just a few – an active construction is usually shorter than a passive one, and using a series of short and swift sentences can help the reader, especially when it makes the text easier and quicker to read. It can also render your words more direct and powerful.

The way we talk

A final reason for using the active voice is that it’s more like the way we talk. When we speak, most people use an active voice rather than a complicated passive construction. Apparently, because when speaking, we have less time to think about what we want to say.

But that raises a paradox, because the passive tense tends to be overused by people who rush into writing without thinking through what they want to write.

The reader’s attention

In any case, there are equally good reasons for ignoring the manual that forbids the use of the passive voice.

One reason is that you can use it to direct the reader’s attention. For example, in ‘Joe catches the ball’ the reader’s mental eye sees Joe first, but in ‘the ball is caught by Joe’ the image in your mind shows the ball whizzing through the air before Joe catches it.

Sometimes the passive helps you stage an event, moving effortlessly between subject and object. For example, ‘the ball was caught by Joe. He threw it back.’

Finally, you can use it when you don’t want or are unable to describe who’s undertaking the action – the usual subject – as in in ‘we were robbed’.