Which is better: the active or passive voice?
Active: I threw the ball to John and prayed he would turn around in time.
Passive: The ball was thrown to John, and a prayer that he would turn around in time was muttered by me.
In this example, and the majority of instances, the active voice is better.
It is more concise and carries greater clarity.
For those who don't know (no shame), here's the difference between active and passive voice:
Active voice = the subject performs the action.
Passive voice = the subject receives the action.
Here's one final example before I share three examples of the passive voice being a better option than the active.
Active: I love my wife.
Passive: My wife is loved by me.
Usually, the active voice is more direct, concise, and empathetic. But in certain situations, the passive voice can be better for emphasis, diplomacy, and flow.
Here are three examples when the passive voice is better than the active:
1. For emphasis: Use the passive voice to emphasize the receiver of the action rather than the performer of the action.
Active: I altered the wording to illustrate a point.
Passive: The wording was altered to illustrate a point.
2. For diplomacy: Use the passive voice to avoid identifying the actor or the performer of the action and assigning blame.
Active: You mismanaged my investments.
Passive: My investments were mismanaged.
3. For flow: Use the passive voice to facilitate coherence by linking the thought of one sentence to the next.
Active: The wail of a loon awakened me. Anyone who has canoed the Boundary Waters wilderness of northern Minnesota has heard that haunting sound.
Passive: I was awakened by the wail of a loon. This haunting sound has been heard by anyone who has canoed the Boundary Waters wilderness of northern Minnesota.
Stephen Wilbers boils down how to know when to use passive or active:
"In any case, your choice of active versus passive voice depends on where you want your emphasis: on the performer of the action (the active voice) or on the receiver of the action (the passive voice)."
It also comes down to taste. You will know when the active voice sounds clunky, and the passive voice would be better.
Trust your gut (ears) and pick the right voice for the right situation.
🧠 // JO
(Examples were taken from Stephen Wilbers book, Mastering the Craft of Writing.)