Is your voice active or passive?

in Back to basics

Which of these newspaper stories would you rather read?

Brazil was beaten in the final by France

France beat Brazil in the final

For me – and I would guess you – it is the second story. This is because the first headline uses the active voice. The first sentence uses the passive voice.

To get technical for a minute, here’s the difference between the active and the passive voice

When you use the active voice, the subject of the verb is doing the action. In the passive voice, the subject is having the action done to it. You can also spot the passive voice because it is a form of the verb ‘to be’ with the past tense of another verb. For example:

The baton will be carried by Angela

The mat was sat on by the cat

And here’s why it’s important that you think about which one you’re using

The passive voice takes the emphasis away from the person involved. Sometimes this is a good thing. Saying ‘mistakes were made’, for example, shifts the blame further away than saying ‘I made a mistake’. It also gives writing a degree of formality that is sometimes needed.

However, you need to be wary of using it when you’re writing marketing copy. This is because it can suck the life and energy out of your work.

For example, ‘George Acme founded Acme Enterprises in 1902’ sounds much more engaging than ‘Acme Enterprises was founded in 1902 by George Acme’.

And ‘We will take your requirements very seriously’ sounds much more powerful than ‘Your requirements will be taken very seriously by us.’

So watch the voice you’re using when you’re writing. And if you find yourself using the passive voice, ask yourself if it’s really the best way to be saying something.

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