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3.4: Active and Passive Voice

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    In Chapter 2, I mentioned the importance of using a formal writing style when composing documents in professional contexts. Formal writing style is a style of writing reserved for professional genres, such as memos, business letters, and reports. Formal writing style uses the active voice meaning the subject of the sentence performs the action. Formal writing style also requires that the writing is clear and concrete, so never use vague language or flowery descriptions. You also want to keep your writing as concise as possible, so include only the most relevant details to the situation. A final rule to remember about formal language is to avoid using abbreviations as your audience may not know what the abbreviation stands for.

    For an illustration of active voice, see the two sentences below. Which sentence would you rather read?

    1. All sales orders are processed daily by Burton.
    2. Burton processes all sales orders daily.

    Most readers prefer sentence 2, but why? You may remember from high school or college English that all sentences have a subject and a verb, but you may not have paid much attention to their functions. Let’s look at how the subject and verb function in these two sentences. In sentence 1, the subject is “Burton,” and the subject is the doer of the action expressed by the verb (processes). In sentence 1, the subject is “sales orders,” and the subject is the receiver of the action expressed by the verb (are processed). Sentence 1 is written in active voice, meaning the sentence is structured in a way where the subject carries out the action. Sentence 2 is written in passive voice, meaning the sentence is structured in a way where the subject receives the action.

    Active sentences tend to be shorter, more precise, and easier to understand. This is especially true because passive sentences can be written in ways that do not tell the reader who the doer of the action is. For example, “All sales orders are processed daily” is a complete and correct sentence in passive voice.

    Active voice is the clear choice for a variety of contexts, but not all. When you want to deemphasize the doer of the action, you may write, “Ten late arrivals were recorded this month” and not even mention who was late. The passive form doesn’t place blame or credit, so it can be more diplomatic in some contexts. Passive voice allows the writer to avoid personal references or personal pronouns (he, she, they) to create a more objective tone. There are also situations where the doer of the action is unknown, as in “graffiti was painted on the side of our building last night.”

    3.4: Active and Passive Voice is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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