The word is Verb, and the Verb is god. —Victor Hugo
The active voice gathers a sentence and throws it like a punch. The passive voice crawls back into its shell. In fact, we find an abundance of the passive voice in sentences created by self-protective interests who use it to avoid responsibility.
Cigarette ads were designed to appeal to children.
This sentence puts the onus of responsibility on the ads and can’t be rewritten in active voice without knowing who designed the ads. Blame is evaded. Philip Morris designed cigarette ads to appeal to children names the culprit.
Which would you prefer to read about—mistakes that were made or the people who made mistakes? Which do you think readers would find intriguing—an observation or an accusation, a confession? Active voice puts the action—and the actor—front and center. It’s the powerful choice, aside from the infrequent strategy that positions the passive voice for five minutes of fame, which I’ll get to.
Consider two sentences—
- The intruder was confronted by Vince.
- Vince confronted the intruder.
Both arrangements are written in past tense, and yet the second sentence (active voice) plays out immediately in our minds. It’s as if we’re there, voyeurs at a break-in. The first sentence (passive voice) comes across as if it occurred some time later, as if we’re reading a police report in the weeks following a break-in. Who’s Vince? A stranger, a statistic of crime. In the second sentence, we somehow know Vince. He’s one of us.
The active voice creates intimacy. The passive voice distances readers.
The passive voice tells information. It’s wordy, indirect, and vague. The telling of information, though, according to science, is its greatest drawback. Passive telling—The intruder was confronted by Vince——travels a different neural circuitry than the active showing of events—Vince confronted the intruder. Active showing communicates directly with the brain’s visual and emotional centers. Active showing invests readers and makes a strong cognitive imprint.
Instead of telling—
The gazelle was surrounded by jackals. (passive-voice)
Jackals surrounded the gazelle. (active-voice)
Instead of telling—
The sky was almost dark. (passive-voice)
The sky darkened. (active voice)
Mistakes were made. People made mistakes. These two statements, as book titles, represent different stories. The active voice changes everything.