Thursday, April 16, 2009

Stay Active

I found a very helpful reference on writing and composition entitled The Elements of Composition, by William Strunk Jr, and I thought I'd share! One subject that Strunk covers is using an active voice as opposed to a passive voice. As writers we are told to do this all the time, and I know I sometimes have some trouble trying to keep up with that. Hope this helps anyone else struggling with a passive voice!

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Use the active voice.

The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive:

I shall always remember my first visit to Boston.

This is much better than

My first visit to Boston will always be remembered by me.

The latter sentence is less direct, less bold, and less concise. If the writer tries to make it more concise by omitting "by me,"

My first visit to Boston will always be remembered,

it becomes indefinite: is it the writer, or some person undisclosed, or the world at large, that will always remember this visit?

This rule does not, of course, mean that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice, which is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary.

The dramatists of the Restoration are little esteemed to-day.
Modern readers have little esteem for the dramatists of the Restoration.

The first would be the right form in a paragraph on the dramatists of the Restoration; the second, in a paragraph on the tastes of modern readers. The need of making a particular word the subject of the sentence will often, as in these examples, determine which voice is to be used.

The habitual use of the active voice, however, makes for forcible writing. This is true not only in narrative principally concerned with action, but in writing of any kind. Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice for some such perfunctory expression as there is, or could be heard.

There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground.

Dead leaves covered the ground.

The sound of the falls could still be heard.

The sound of the falls still reached our ears.

The reason that he left college was that his health became impaired.

Failing health compelled him to leave college.

It was not long before he was very sorry that he had said what he had.

He soon repented his words.

As a rule, avoid making one passive depend directly upon another.

A common fault is to use as the subject of a passive construction a noun which expresses the entire action, leaving to the verb no function beyond that of completing the sentence.

A survey of this region was made in 1900.

This region was surveyed in 1900.

Mobilization of the army was rapidly carried out.

The army was rapidly mobilized.

Confirmation of these reports cannot be obtained.

These reports cannot be confirmed.


  1. Yep, I picked up this honorable tome a while back, when I first began writing (on the advice of a good friend). Although some of it is common sense for those of us who write all the time, there is enough good information in the book to warrant picking up a copy. Then keep it next to the spot you choose to write in for reference.

  2. I struggle with this so much! I don't even realize I do it. One of my yet-to-be-overcome writing hurdles.

  3. This is an excellent review. Thanks!

  4. Not to mention, active voice is nearly always shorter than passive in terms of wordiness.

    And the key to communication is brevity. :)

  5. I first encountered Elements of Style in High School and it remains one of my favorite guides to this day. Nice review!

  6. I love "The Elements of Composition, by William Strunk Jr". I had it in high school also and all through college. Thanks for the refresher as I often alternate between active and passive voice within a writing session. I always have to edit very carefully to make sure it's all (mostly) active.