Why “active” voice is better than “passive”

Posted on Apr 22, 2015 in Board News, Literacy

Once a month, I take my daughters, 9 and 13, to get donuts at Yum-Yums on a Friday night. We pick a dozen favorites and then go home to watch a movie while we each enjoy one donut as our treat. (They’re huge!) Then I put my girls to bed. And they know they can have a donut for breakfast the next morning.

But one morning, my girls open the donut box and… freeze. There are only 7 donuts, not the 9 they expected to see. My older girl turns to me dramatically, places her hands on her hips and gives me a fierce accusatory glare.

I peer into the box and say, “It appears some donuts have been eaten.”

She looks stunned. (“What did he say?!”) I can tell she’s thinking. Hard. She knows darn well I ate 2 donuts after they went to bed last night.

But I didn’t say that. I said, “It appears some donuts have been eaten.” So she has to process my disassembled statement. I’ve thrown a mystery at her, and she’s trying to solve it.

Then, she points at me and says, “You ate the donuts.”

And that is an active sentence.

It contains an actor and an action. “You. Ate.” It’s simple, clear, transparent, concrete. You quickly and easily get a picture in your head of what this looks like. (You may even see me slinking into the kitchen and slipping 2 donuts out of the box.)

But my daughter was initially stumped because there was no actor in the garbled mess of words I gave her. To create a picture, she has to add information from outside the sentence to solve the mystery. Because the answer to, “Who ate the donuts?” was not in my sentence.

And this is why we avoid passive voice. It’s unclear. It’s sloppy. It’s lazy. It slows people down when they read. Worst of all, it throws an unnecessary and irritating mystery in a reader’s face. This isn’t a fun mystery, like an Agatha Christie novel or an episode of Scooby Doo. This is just annoying.

So the reason we push to use active voice is simple: We want to help readers, not irritate them.


BrianBerkenstockAbout the author: Brian Berkenstock is a Center for Plain Language Board Member, and a content strategist at Aetna.