December 7th, 2009
Many writers use passive language without thinking. It pays to think about passive language carefully since it tends to weaken your writing, confuse your readers, and make your sentences longer. In contrast, active language focuses your readers’ attention and increases the impact of your message.
As you can see in the following examples of active language, the actor comes before the action. To use active language, say who acts, not just what the action is. In the following revisions, we’ve underlined the actor and boldfaced the action.
PASSIVE: The project was managed by John.
ACTIVE: John managed the project.
PASSIVE: The design document has been completed by the team.
ACTIVE: The team has completed the design document.
PASSIVE: A plan was prepared and distributed to employees by the committee.
ACTIVE: The committee prepared a plan and distributed it to employees.
All three of these sentences are clearer when the actors come before the action.
When you give instructions, it’s particularly important to say clearly what you want your readers to do. It can be frustrating and confusing to try to follow instructions that someone wrote in passive language.
PASSIVE: The water should be measured every 35 minutes.
ACTIVE: (Implied you) Measure the water every 35 minutes.
The technician should measure the water every 35 minutes.
PASSIVE: The cover of the printer should be lifted, the ink cartridges that have been emptied should be removed, and the new ink cartridges should then be opened, prepared, and inserted in the appropriate slots.
ACTIVE: (Implied you) Lift the printer cover, remove the empty cartridges, open and prepare the new cartridges, and insert the new cartridges into the appropriate slot.
The first revision changes passive to active language by putting a stated actor before the action of measuring the water. In the second revision, the implied actor – “you” – now appears before the actions of lifting the cover and removing the cartridge. Did you notice how much more concise the active version is?
The next two examples also show how to revise a passive-language sentence by adding one or more missing subjects or actors.
PASSIVE: The door was found unlocked three times during the past month.
ACTIVE: The security guard found the door unlocked three times during the past month.
PASSIVE: It would be appreciated if the report could be delivered to me on Monday.
ACTIVE: I would appreciate it if you deliver the report to me on Monday.
You can find more information about using active language, and many other ways to bring your writing to life, in our book Professional Writing Skills: A Write It Well Guide. The new edition of the book, along with a corresponding facilitator kit, will ship in January 2010.