Voice and What it Means for Writers and Readers

I don’t know about you, but I make pictures in my mind as I read.  When I read clear writing, I can easily gather concrete, specific details that I use to make a better picture.  Through the picture-making process, I develop a better understanding of whatever I am reading.  Voice influences what, how, and when certain details make it into the picture I am constructing.

Just one of many factors that influence clarity of expression, voice refers to whether the subject of the sentence is performing an action or receiving the action.  To identify voice, which can change from sentence to sentence, we have to pick apart sentence structure and understand the relationships between its actions, performers, and objects.

A simple active sentence provides a clear subject that acts.

  • Protesters climbed over the barricades.

A simple passive sentence shows the subject as receiving action.

  • City Centre was overcome by protesters this week.

Notice the change in subjects and emphasis.  In the first sentence, protesters are the subject and we see them climbing immediately.  In the second sentence, the subject is City Centre.  We picture that first, but then we have to guess what that would look like if it was overcome, but we only know by whom (the protesters) at the end of the sentence.  This processing happens quickly, but you can see how the passive structure slows us down compared to the active structure.

In some passive sentences, we may never find an answer to the question of by whom.  I’m sure you are familiar with these evasive examples of political rhetoric:

  • Mistakes have been made.
  • An investigation has been launched.
  • The matter will be addressed.

Clearly, the intent is to not be clear.  In statements like these, readers or listeners do not get real details to add to our picture.  This construction deliberately omits the performer to hide issues of blame or responsibility.

In longer sentences, diction and word placement can obscure the actions and performers, making it difficult for the reader to see the sentence as either active or passive, and create the necessary mental pictures.  Sometimes the words that seem to convey action are acting as other parts of speech rather than as verbs.  Fun stuff, eh?

Most style guides say that the active voice encourages direct explanations that fall in a natural sequence of words.  Active sentences tend to be shorter, clearer, and more specific.  Passive constructions tend to be wordy, awkward, and vague.  The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association says that while both types of voice are permissible, “many writers overuse the passive voice.” It encourages writers to use active voice “as much as possible to create clear, direct sentences” (American Psychological Association 118).  The Chicago Manual of Style agrees, stating, “As a matter of style, passive voice …  is typically, though not always, inferior to active voice” (University of Chicago Press 264).  They acknowledge that, sometimes, passive might be more appropriate.

Benjamin Dreyer, copy chief of Random House, has some helpful and amusing advice about identifying active or passive voice.  “If you can append ‘by zombies’ to the end of a sentence,” he says, “you’ve indeed written a sentence in the passive voice” (Dreyer 14).  You can also look for these words: was, were, by, and will be.  They do not guarantee the sentence is passive, but the sentences they are in are worth checking closely.

Hemingway Editor and Grammarly have passive voice checkers which are helpful but not always correct or reliable.  They can check for passive voice, but not discern when it may be more appropriate to change voice.  A human writer or editor who understands passive voice, as well as the written content and context, is the best judge of when to use active or passive voice.

So how do we know which voice to use in a given sentence? Here are some questions to consider if you are revising a sentence for voice:

  • Where does the reader’s interest lie at this time? Should the performer be emphasized with an active sentence? Is the action more important than the performer? Or is the object or recipient of the action more important than the performer and action?
  • Do I have a reason to tame, hide, or delay certain details? Is the performer of the action unknown or unimportant?
  • If I use a concrete noun and definite action (in the form of a verb), will I create a more efficient and detailed picture in the reader’s mind?
  • Am I trying to avoid using a personal pronoun?
  • Would changing the voice of the sentence ease a transition between sentences or paragraphs?
  • Have I used too many direct, active sentences? Is there a choppy or repetitive cadence to the paragraph?
  • Have I written a sentence that is too long and awkward to comfortably read aloud?
  • What voice and arrangement of words will ease the experience for the reader?

Remember, most of the time, the active voice is best.  However, the writer who is willing to give readers the most comfortable and elucidating experience will consider these questions while revising sentence by sentence.  By shifting and changing certain words, we adjust emphasis and affect how our readers build pictures and meaning from our writing.

American Psychological Association.  Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association.  7th.  Washington: American Psychological Association, 2020.
Dreyer, Benjamin.  Dreyer’s English.  New York: Random House, 2019.
University of Chicago Press.  Chicago Manual of Style.  17th.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017.