Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Active and passive voice

When I was in high school, our writing teacher (Janice Ruhle, I believe) constantly told us, "Don't use passive voice." I didn't understand what she meant then, not totally. I do now. In fact, she should have said, "Use active voice." It's a more active sentence.

The Associated Press uses a lot of passive voice to start a story. An AP writer might say "Joe Schmoe was fired today as coach of Basketball University." He could have used active voice and said, "Basketball University fired Coach Joe Schmoe today," but that's not AP's style. They want to get Joe Schmoe out there first, and it makes sense.

But in general active voice beats passive voice any day of the week. "I gave her the book" is better than "She was given the book."

"Moses received the Ten Commandments" is fine, but "God handed Moses the Ten Commandments" is 10 times more powerful. It creates a picture in your head; you'd love to see God handing Moses the tablet.

We're creatures of motion, and active voice creates the better picture.

Think active, and write on.

Entries from The Dog Blog
Blog entries from The Auto Racing Journal
(a book of great stories about the Intimidator)
(the book of great NASCAR stories)

More blog entries by Tom Gillispie

Anecdotes by Tom Gillispie


  1. Good advice, Tom. I think Hope posted comments in your group about pet peeve words. After I read the post, I went through my stuff and found gobs of "was['s]"! I learned more about writing than I have in a long time. Every day, I write better. How did I miss such a big thing??

  2. This covers my bad habit. I do use my computer settings for word more appropriately now, and find words and sentence structures that better fit my story-line. I love the 'active voice' thought. It will really help my sentence structure as well.OOPS! Did I use 'sentence structure three times here? I know how Tom hates repetitiveness!! *laughing*

  3. Active is the one for me too. And Word and Google Docs realise this too - there are tools to assess your use of active/passive...
    1. Click Preferences then click Spelling and Grammar.
    2. Select the Check grammar and spelling check box.
    3. Select the Show readability statistics check box, and then click OK.
    4. On the Tools menu, click Spelling and Grammar.
    Hope that works.

    I also love that quote posted on the Freelance Writers and Editors yahoo group:

    "We have not passed that subtle line between childhood and adulthood until we move from the passive voice to the active voice - that is, until we have stopped saying 'It got lost,' and say, 'I lost it.'" - Sydney J. Harris, journalist (1917-1986)

    I am linking from Winkler's Writing Rules from my food blog to here! Thanks


  4. Linda hands a "You Rule" sign to Tom for this insightful and beneficial post.

    AP style helps support my family, but I know to switch gears when writing fiction.

    Thanks Tom!