Active/Passive Voice

You've likely read about active and passive voice in Richard Wydick, Plain English for Lawyers (Chapter 4). Here is some more information on what these different constructions are and when you should use each of them. Scroll down to the bottom of the page for links to more online resources covering this topic.

What is passive voice?

In a sentence using active voice, the subject of the sentence performs the action expressed in the verb. In a sentence using passive voice, the subject is acted upon. Examples:

a. active voice: The police officer arrested the man.
(The police officer is the subject of the sentence and is performing the action of arresting.)

b. passive voice: The man was arrested by the police officer.
(The man is the subject of the sentence but he is not performing the action of arresting.)

A shortcut to try and identify passive construction in your writing is to look for an extra "be" verb (is, are, was, were) and the word "by".

a. active voice: The police officer arrested the man.

b. passive voice: The man was arrested by the police officer. The man was arrested.

 

Why should I use the active voice?

1. The active voice is more concise. For example:

a. active voice: The dog chased the cat. (five words)

b. passive voice: The cat was chased by the dog. (seven words)

2. The active voice is often stronger than the passive voice. For example:

a. active voice: Judges must explain the reasons behind their decisions.

b. passive voice: The reasons behind their decisions must be explained by judges.

3. The passive voice tempts the writer to omit the identity of the actor, thus producing a fuzzy truncated passive like this:

truncated passive: A copy of every Action Letter shall be sent to the Clerk of the Administrative Office for entry and filing, and a memorandum briefly describing the Action Letter shall be distributed to each Commissioner within three days thereafter.

(Using passive voice here leaves a lot of questions: Who is supposed to send the copy to the Clerk? Who is supposed to write the memorandum? Who is supposed to distribute the memorandum? We can't tell, because the writer used the truncated passive to hide the actor.)

Tip: In general, use the active voice in your writing.

Is there ever a good reason to use passive voice?

Yes. Here are the four most common good reasons:

1. Sometimes you may not want to name the actor because you want to play down the actor's role in the event. (For instance, maybe the actor is your client.) Example: When the lights went out, several punches were thrown.

2. Sometimes it's the action that's important, not who does it. Example: This Act may be cited as the Unlawful Detention Act of 2002.

3. Sometimes you may not know who did the acting. Example: During the following six months, the fence wire was cut on nine separate occasions.

4. Sometimes you need the passive in order to connect this sentence smoothly with the preceding sentence or sentences. Example: The key question is, therefore, when did the defendant actually receive the summons and complaint? The summons and complaint were not served on the defendant in person until May 18th.

Tip: Be Consistent

Whether you are using active or passive voice, be consistent within a sentence.

a. He tried to act cool when he slipped in the puddle, but he was still laughed at by the other students. (Uses active voice in the first clause, passive voice in the second clause)

b. He tried to act cool when he slipped in the puddle, but the other students still laughed at him. (Uses active voice in both parts of the sentence.)

For More Information:

Grammar Girl, "Active Versus Passive Voice," 2011. Access at http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/active-voice-versus-passive-voice.

Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL), "Active and Passive Voice," 2012. Access at http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/539/1/.