Many people suggest all sorts of ways to sharpen your writing. A lot of the advice is about simplification. Replace long words with short ones. Keep your sentences short. Delete words whenever possible. Use white space. Use adjectives and adverbs sparingly. And, of course, use the active voice. All of this is good advice.

If you search the web, you will find some people who suggest that this preference for the active voice is one of those grammar myths. That, however, is misleading. In business writing, the passive voice is used far too often, and a useful editing exercise involves searching your text for the passive voice and changing it to the active voice.

For example, consider these instructions:

All applications must be submitted before the deadline. Applications submitted after the deadline will not be considered.

It is probably better to use the active voice and say the following:

You must submit your application before the deadline. Otherwise, we won’t consider it.

The second version is not just clearer. It’s also friendlier. (Note how useful “you” and “we” can be to communicate rules and regulations clearly.)

But, like many grammar rules, you shouldn’t take this one too literally. Sometimes there’s an excellent case for using the passive voice. When you are not sure who performed the action or it’s somehow irrelevant, the passive voice can be very useful. Let’s imagine a conversation about a car. The issue is about the country of manufacture. Someone might ask:

Where was your car made?

The answer might be:

It was made in Japan.

The focus of the conversation is the car. We aren’t interested in the people who made it, although I am sure they’re very nice! It simply isn’t the topic of conversation.

It would be silly to ask:

Where did people make your car?

So, the answer to the active versus passive debate is that it’s usually a good idea to use the active voice. But sometimes it isn’t. The moral of the story is that there are very few hard and fast writing rules. The context usually provides the best answer!

 

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