The Science of Good Writing: Taking Action

This post is part of a series on the “science” of good writing, based on the article “The Science of Scientific Writing” by Gopen and Swan. Want to start at the beginning of the series? That’s cool. Otherwise, keep on reading!

What’s the difference between these three sentences?

  • I baked a cake.
  • The cake was baked by me.
  • Did you even notice that I baked a cake?

The first sentence is active voice; the second sentence is passive voice. The third sentence is passive-aggressive voice. *cue rimshot*

Okay, okay. “Passive aggressive voice” isn’t a thing. That one was a joke. But passive voice is real, and it plagues a good many writers. A lot of writers have a general sense that passive voice is bad, but they have trouble identifying it, explaining why they shouldn’t use it, or fixing it.

I have some news for you, writers. What I’m about to say may shock you. It may fly in the face of everything you’v ever been told about passive voice.

Passive voice isn’t inherently bad.

Shocker, I know. But it’s true!

Getting rid of passive voice is one of the techniques Gopen and Swan suggest for improving your writing. In most cases, I don’t disagree. There are a few instances where you, as a writer, may find passive voice to be useful. In this post, I’m going to explain passive voice–talk about what it is, how to identify it, and how to get rid of it. Then, I’ll talk about those times that you should consider using it.

Why is it called passive voice?

Okay, so what is passive voice? For that matter, what is active voice? Well, let’s think about the meaning of those two adjectives–passive and active. What does it mean to be active? No, not active in the, like, exercise sense, but if the analogy helps, let’s go with it. To be active means that you… do things. You take actions. You run, you swim, you hike, you bike.

Now, what does it mean to be passive? Being passive means that you don’t take actions. Things happen to you, things that you don’t necessarily have control over because you’re not acting.

Consider the following sentence:

Screenshot of Pokemon Go mobile game. The screen shows a black and yellow pokeball with the caption, "Bidoof was caught!"

So, who caught this Pokémon? In other words, who did the catching? Who completed the action? I did, but you wouldn’t know that from this sentence, because it’s passive voice. I’m not saying the Bidoof didn’t do anything while I was catching it. Actually, it was rather annoying, jumping around on the screen and hopping out of the ball the first two times I caught it. But I was the one who did the action “catch.”

This is an extremely petty gripe, I know, but I do not understand why the screen doesn’t say “You caught Bidoof!” Maybe it’s a translation issue? Oh, well. I’m (mostly) over it.

Subjects and Verbs and Voices, Oh, My!

Enough Pokémon chat already. What exactly are active and passive voice?

Here are the textbook-style definitions:

  • In active voice, the subject does the action expressed in the verb of the sentence.
  • In passive voice, the action expressed in the sentence is not done by the sentence’s subject.

Fun fact, those sentences are also in active and passive voice, respectively.

While Gopen and Swan talk about passive and active voice in terms of action, another book talks about active voice in terms of both action and characters. In their book Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, Joseph M. Williams and Joseph Bizup ask you, the writer, to think about a sentence in terms of it possible actions and characters. Actions are things that can be done, and characters are people, places, things, or ideas.

The way to write in active voice, say Williams and Bizup, is to make sure that characters are the grammatical subjects of sentences, and that actions are the verbs of sentences. Here’s a quick refresher if you need a reminder of what’s a subject and what’s a verb.

Okay, so let’s consider the two cake sentences from before:

  • I baked a cake.
  • The cake was baked by me.

In both sentences, both I and the cake are characters. The action is baked. Which sentence is active, and which is passive?

The active sentence is the sentence in which the grammatical subject is a character who is doing an action: I baked a cake.

Finding and Changing Passive Voice

So, then, how do you find passive voice and change it into active voice? Here’s a quick five step guide:

  1. Find all possible characters in the sentence.
  2. Find all possible actions in the sentence.
  3. Locate the grammatical subject.
  4. Locate the verb.
  5. Is the grammatical subject a character who is doing the action located in the verb? If yes, great! You’ve got active voice. If not, you probably have passive voice.

What’s great about this five-step process is that changing passive voice into active voice takes only one more step:

  1. Find an appropriate character-action pair in the sentence and make sure they’re the grammatical subject and grammatical verb.

Active vs. Passive Voice: Ultimate Showdown

Okay, so now you can define, identify, and change passive voice. Great! Here’s a question you may still be asking:

Spongebob Squarepants holds an rainbow between his hands and asks, "Why"

In many cases, active voice is easier on the reader. For one thing, active sentences usually have fewer words than their passive counterparts, which means they’re quicker to read. But Gopen and Swan also point out that it can be much easier to understand the “story” of a sentence if its “players” (Williams and Bizup’s “characters”) are doing the actions.

But is it ever appropriate to use the passive voice? Yes, actually! I can think of at least a couple.

Connecting Sentences with Passive Voice

One reason to use passive voice is to improve the connections between two sentences. Another reason might be to make sure that you’re putting old information in the topic position and new information in the stress position, like I talked about in a previous post.

Consider following passages of micro-fiction:

  • “Oh, no!” I said, pointing to the four-tier cake with yellow icing and marzipan decoration on top. “I baked that cake.”
  • “Excuse me,” I said, interrupting the baker who was trying to take all of my credit. “That cake was baked by me.”

In the first passage, I want to put the emphasis on which cake I baked, so I put “that cake” at the end of the sentence. In the second passage, I want to make sure no one is taking credit for my work, so put “me” in the stress position. These are examples from fiction, but the same principle applies to nonfiction writing as well.

Shifting Blame with Passive Voice

There’s something else you can do with passive voice, too.

A couple of months ago, I got a notification from Netflix:

Your monthly subscription rate is rising.

Funny how they don’t mention who’s raising it.

Now, pedants will argue that the verbs “rise” is not the same as the verb “raise,” and that the first sentence isn’t technically passive voice because the sentence is expressing a state of being in lieu of an action. FINE. How about this one:

A data breach was discovered, and your data may have been compromised.

Both parts of this compound sentence are passive voice. Who discovered this data breach? And who compromised the data?

This is a hypothetical example, but companies that have experienced data breaches may choose to use passive voice to obfuscate a few things. If they say, “We discovered a data breach,” they may have to acknowledge that there was a period of time that they did not know the data had been compromised. And if they say, “Hackers may have stolen your data,” they have to acknowledge the presence of the hackers. By using passive voice, they can just… leave those things out.

This is a strategy I myself have recommended in my technical and professional communication classes, but I’m considering changing my stance. Maybe I’ll write a whole post about this one day, but a better PR strategy these days may be to just accept blame and work to write whatever wrong has been committed. And the first step might be using active voice.

And that’s it, folks! We’ve made it to the end of the mini-series on Gopen and Swan’s The Science of Scientific Writing. Which tip do you think will be most useful in your own writing? Let me know in the comments below!

If you want, you can also revisit the other pieces in the series:

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