The Penultimate Word

Passive Voice vs. Active Voice

Did you ever have an English teacher force you to write a paper so that all of your sentences were in the active voice? Insisting that the subject of your sentences always be doing something. Ed runs … Lucy talked … The dog licked …? I wish teachers would stop spouting the rule “Always write in the active voice,“ because it doesn’t give the whole picture.

Granted, using the active voice is simpler, it’s more direct, and it lends vitality to your writing. BUT there’s something more important than active versus passive voice. And that is … SUBJECT MATTER. Whatever you’re talking about—whatever’s important in your message—that should be the subject of your sentence. Forget about whether it results in an active or passive structure.

Passive voice – It’s OK to say “The mouse was caught by the cat.”Let’s look at a couple of sentences:

The cat caught the mouse. (Active)

The mouse was caught by the cat. (Passive)

Let’s say we have a cat—a prissy, white Persian cat. Very high maintenance. Lounges around on pillows all day and eats only Fancy Feast served in stemware. One day, to everyone’s surprise, the cat catches a mouse. And boom—total personality change. Now the cat is out prowling at all hours of the night and only eats fresh, raw meat, preferably baby bunnies.

In this scenario, the message is about the cat. So, the cat should be the subject of the sentence.

The cat caught the mouse. (Active)

By contrast, maybe we love mice. We love how their beady, little, red eyes glow in the dark. We love how their sharp little teeth gnaw through all of our food containers. And there’s one special mouse—we’ll call him “Ben”—that we particularly like. And then one day, Ben is caught by the neighbor’s prissy, white cat.

In this scenario, the message is about the mouse. So, the mouse should be the subject of the sentence.

The mouse was caught by the cat. (Passive)

As you can see, the voice of a sentence (active or passive) is determined by the subject matter. NOT the other way around. So, instead of blindly following some grammar edict about always using the active voice, what we need to do is determine what’s important in the message, put that right up front, and make that the subject of the sentence … regardless of the voice.


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