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Static: Passive Voice

Before getting into the subject of this week’s blog post . . .


Southern Writers magazine will be featuring my book Combat! Spiritual Lessons from Military History in a two-part article on its “Suite T” blog on February 21 and March 6. You’ll be able to read about how the idea for the book came about, some difficulties involved in its writing, and much more. The link for accessing the two posts is I hope that you’ll visit the site to read both posts when they appear online. And I’ll be happy to answer any questions you might have about my book and the process involved in its publication (assuming that I know the answers!). I’ll post reminders just before each post appears just in case you, like I, have memory problems!

In my previous blog post, I discussed the danger that various forms of “static,” or interference, pose to effective writing. Today, we consider one type of such static, the use of passive voice constructions, and how to overcome it. Consider, for starters, the following two sentences.

“The Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge was designed and built by Roebling.”

That is a grammatically correct sentence, but, as we will see, it is weak because it uses passive voice. Consider, however, an alternative wording, a sentence that communicates the same basic message but is stronger because it uses active, rather than passive, voice.

“Roebling designed and built the Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge.”

This construction is shorter, tighter, more concise, and more direct. The content is the same in both sentences, but the effect is totally different. The first sentence focuses on the bridge; the second sentence focuses on the designer and builder.

Simply defined, passive voice is when the recipient of the verb’s action becomes the subject of the sentence. A passive construction weakens the clarity of your message, leading to potential misunderstanding or, just as bad, might cause the reader to have to go back and reread it to ensure that he’s received and understood the intended message. It makes your writing sound awkward and wordy. It’s a form of static that potentially hinders or interrupts communication, just as static on a radio disrupts a broadcast.

Using active voice, on the other hand, “throws the weight of a sentence where it is wanted” (Follett, Modern American Usage).

The only possibly excusable use of passive voice is in scientific or technical writing. The academic and scientific community has used passive voice as an accepted (even mandated) form of writing for hundreds of years. The primary reason given for that practice has been that it sounds objective. It avoids use of first person (e.g., “I” or “we”), thereby de-emphasizing the researchers or participants while moving the focus to the object of the research being conducted.

I encountered this practice when I was a senior technical editor at the nuclear weapons complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and it drove me crazy! I changed passive constructions to active, and the scientists who had reporting their findings and were reviewing my edits changed it back to passive. Repeatedly. My unofficial conclusion was that no one wanted to take sole credit for successes or blame for failures! (And who can blame them?!)

But aside from scientific writing, you can greatly improve your writing by using primarily active voice. Doing so offers the following advantages and benefits:

  1. It tightens your writing, making it shorter, less wordy, and more concise. Remember, you want to “make every word count.”

  2. It “eliminates dead weight in your writing.” Every word should do a job, carrying its own weight.

  3. It improves the pace of your writing. It speeds up the action.

  4. It is simple, direct, and easy to understand, thereby reducing the risk of misunderstandings that force rereading.

  5. It makes a stronger connection to the action.

In most cases, active voice is better than passive voice. But when you combine active voice with dynamic and descriptive verbs, your writing becomes superb! Consider how the following progressive changes in wording improve the original, passive construction.

Original (passive): “The ball was hit by Babe.” Revised (active): “Babe hit the ball.” Revised (more descriptive): “Babe clobbered the ball.” Revised, even better: “Babe tore the cover off the ball, sending it into the last row of the upper deck.”

Use active voice, and squelch some of the static from your writing!

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