The Boring Passive Voice


“Your writing bores me.” “I am bored by your writing.”

Not only do these two sentences demonstrate the difference between the active and passive voice but also they communicate a central reason for avoiding the passive voice.

In the active voice, the subject of the sentence does the action described by the main verb. Thus, the subject is active. In the passive voice, the action is done to the subject. Thus, the subject is passive. Passive voice is a problem for direct writing and for reader interest.

Direct writing answers the readers’ question “Who did what?” It tells the reader what the subject is and what the subject did. This is, by definition, the active voice. Let’s look at an example, using the first two sentences above.

“Your writing bores me.” The subject is “writing” (or “your writing”). The subject is performing an action: boring me. This sentence is in the active voice. It is also more interesting than the second sentences. Readers will focus on the subject of the sentence, and in this sentence, the subject is doing something.

“I am bored by your writing.” The subject is “I.” This subject is not doing anything. Rather, the action is being done to the subject. This sentence, therefore, is in the passive voice. It is less interesting than the first sentence because the subject, which is the focus of the sentence, isn’t doing anything.

If you write many sentences in the passive voice, the reader may feel the sentiment expressed in the example sentences: boredom.

As we can see from these examples, the passive voice is not direct writing and is less engaging than the active voice. Clear, direct, and interesting writing, by contrast, uses the active voice.

POP QUIZ

In the sentences below, which sentences are in the active voice and which are in the passive voice?

Example 1: “After the restaurant was closed, the equipment rusted.”

Example 2: “The equipment, which was used when purchased, was sold at a discount.”

Example 3: “The financial projections prepared for us by the accountant showed that we had made steady growth.”

Example 4: “Our paper supply was considered sufficient.”

ANSWERS

Example 1: Active voice. The subject of the sentence is “equipment,” and the action is “rusted.” The subject did the action, so this is the active voice.

Example 2: Passive voice. The subject of the sentence is “equipment,” and the action is “sold.” The equipment did not do the selling. Rather, the action was done to the subject, so this is the passive voice.

Example 3: Active voice. The subject of the sentence is “projections” (or “financial projections”), and the action is “showed.” Indeed, the subject did the action, so this is the active voice. The phrase “prepared for us by the accountant” is in the passive voice because the action of preparing was not done by the projections; it was done to the projections by the accountant. Even so, this sentence is in the active voice. To determine whether a sentence is active or passive, we only need to consider the subject and main verb.

Example 4: Passive voice. The subject is “supply” (or “paper supply”), and the action is “was considered.” This one is a bit tricky, but the important concept is that the paper supply did not do the considering. Someone or something else did that action, meaning someone was considering the paper supply and concluded that it was sufficient. Because the subject did not do the action but the action was done to the subject, this sentence, too, is in the passive voice.

RECAP

Active voice: Direct and interesting writing. The subject does the action.

Passive voice: Not direct and not interesting writing. The action is done to the subject.

Is writing in the passive voice truly boring? Yes and no. A single sentence in the passive voice isn’t a problem for reader interest. On the other hand, a document with many passive voice sentences is a problem. Each passive voice sentence decreases reader interest slightly, and these slight decreases add up to boring writing.

As an analogy, let’s say that reader interest can be mapped on a scale of 0 to 100, with 100 being the most interesting writing and 0 being the most boring writing. Each passive voice sentence lowers reader interest by 1 point. A 1-point loss in interest isn’t a problem, but 30 passive sentences lowers interest by 30 points, and this is a problem.

To keep reader interest high, find your passive voice sentences and revise them to active voice sentences. You don’t want readers to respond “Your writing bores me.” You want them to respond “Your writing excites me.”


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