Top 10 grammar myths: you must always use the active voice and never mix active and passive

Many people have been taught to always use the active voice and never mix active and passive in the same piece of writing. This is nonsense. Although the active voice is often stronger than the passive voice, the passive has its uses.

First, what’s the difference between active and passive voice? It’s all about the verbs and who is doing what.

When a sentence is active, someone or something performs an action. When a sentence is passive, we either don’t know who performed the action, or the ‘doer’ comes after the verb. Compare the following sentences:

The car was stolen. (passive)
A local teenager stole the car. (active)

The passive voice is useful:

  • When you don’t want to acknowledge responsibility (A mistake was made.)
  • When it’s irrelevant who performed the action (The woman was mentored.)
  • For emphasis (The yellow car [not the purple one] was hit by the bus.)
  • For more formal writing in the third person (It is recommended that…)

To identify a passive construction:

  • Find the verb and ask ‘who or what performed the action?’. If the person or thing performing the action is at the beginning of the sentence, the sentence is active.
  • Look for the word by, which is often an indication of the passive. (The action was performed by management.)
  • Look for parts of the verb to be used with another verb. For example, is found, are found, was found, were found, will be found, have been found, should be found. This guideline won’t always work, as the verb to be may be part of a verb tense. (We are making progress.)

Or set your Microsoft proofing default to check for passives.

You can combine the active and passive voice within a document and occasionally within sentences.

It is recommended (passive) that the Board vote (active) for the proposal.
It is anticipated (passive) that the house will sell (active) tomorrow.

The challenge is to use the passive voice appropriately and not abuse it. Overuse of the passive voice makes writing seems pompous and gives the passive voice a bad name.

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