Prompt Grammar Tip: Active or Passive?

Hazel Butters/ October 6, 2020/ Grammar Tips/ 0 comments

Writing in an active voice rather than a passive voice is actually a choice, not a strict grammatical rule. But if you’ve ever worked as a journalist or short-form writer, or undergone fast-track media training, you could easily get the impression that passive is simply bad form.

In its most basic sense, an active voice focuses on a subject performing an action. In our industry, this might be: ‘Acme Industries launches product’. In a passive voice, that subject is instead acted upon, resulting in ‘The product is launched by Acme Industries’.

The passive voice is not wrong, and can indeed be preferable in some circumstances. But it does have some downsides that lead many editors, trainers and teachers to frown upon it. The verb structure in a passive sentence is lengthier, and generally lacks the clarity, simplicity and punch of an active construction. Spoken out loud, passive sentences often sound ‘clunkier’ and interrupt the flow and momentum of writing.

Once you’re aware of the distinction though, the passive voice definitely has its uses. Succinct headlines are often written in the passive: ‘Acme CEO Fired’ or ‘Acme Software Infected’, for example. Generally speaking, if you’re consciously using the passive tense to emphasize the action over the subject, then go for it. But if you’re just falling into a passive voice as you get tangled in the subject matter, then get active, and simplify that sentence structure.

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