An alternative title for this tip is ‘Use passive voice judiciously’.
In active voice, the subject of the sentence is performing the action. For example, ‘The mouse ate the cheese’. In this sentence, the mouse (the subject) is doing the action (eating). In passive voice, the subject has the action performed upon it. If you were to rewrite the previous sentence in passive voice – ‘The cheese was eaten by the mouse’ – the subject is now the cheese, and the action is being performed on it (being eaten).
Sometimes passive voice is fine. Sometimes it’s necessary – for instance, when you don’t know who or what performed the action (‘The cheese was eaten’). It’s also useful when the entity performing the action is irrelevant. For instance: ‘You are not allowed to eat in the library’. Who is not allowing you to eat in the library? It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you (subject) have to put your sandwiches away.
As with any sentence construction, it’s best not to overdo the passive voice. Variety is important, but active voice is often clearer, stronger and more concise.
About this blog
Through my experience as an editor, a reader and a book reviewer, I’ve noticed that some writing faults keep just popping up again and again. As an author, I’m especially aware of those writing crimes that I’m frequently tempted to commit myself. This series of brief tips addresses the common writing problems that I’ve encountered. Following them will help make your writing clear, accurate and stylish.