Dear Megan: Passive (Boo Hiss) Versus Active (Hooray) Voice

Our resident grammarian and style expert, Dear Megan, kicks off her inaugural column with a tipsy reminder about passive and active voice construction.

Dear MeganWelcome to Dear Megan, the inaugural blog post of a ridiculously fastidious editor. This is a place for writers and other word lovers (known as logophiles, in case you were wondering) to get writing tips, ask questions, refine their skills and occasionally make fun of people who can’t form contractions properly. Just kidding. Sort of.

Are you a professional freelance writer looking to hone your craft? Do you want editors to swoon over your work (and offer you more)? Have you been looking for a cute brunette to give you consistent and reliable advice about writing, grammar and word choice?

Well, here I am—the quintessential word nerd-slash-editor who loves language, strong writing and properly placed apostrophes. I’ve been known to engage in lengthy discussions about hyphens and compound modifiers, and I’m passionate about AP style (some would say “obsessed” … fine, whatever). If you’re a like-minded soul looking to refine your skills and make yourself more marketable in a content-centric industry—in which the very currency we deal in is words—welcome. You are my people.

As the name implies, this is an advice column. So ask away, wordsmiths. What’s troubling your writing? How can I help you make your writing tighter and stronger and command more money in the content marketplace? Leave me a comment below and I’ll do my best to answer your question in an upcoming column.

Let’s get started, shall we? This question comes to us from Nigel in Los Angeles (really, it’s from my co-worker Erin, because it’s the first week of this column and I don’t have any questions to answer. Things will pick up.).

Dear Megan,

My editor told me to avoid writing in the passive voice, but I can’t seem to master it. Can you help?

You bet. First, a question. Which sounds better:

1. This blog post was created by me.
2. I created this blog post.

Why, #2, of course. It’s in the active (hooray!) voice—meaning, the subject of the sentence performed the action. Sentence #1 is in the passive (boo hiss) voice, meaning the target of the action has now become the subject. But the subject isn’t doing anything; it’s just kinda sitting there, receiving my creation. The focus of the sentence has changed from me to this blog post, but the vast majority of the time, the person or thing performing the action should be the subject. It’s just tighter, better writing. Passive voice isn’t wrong, but it’s not good, either.

Let’s look at a few more:

Passive: It was determined by broke writers that it is OK to drink cooking sherry.
Active: Broke writers determined it is OK to drink cooking sherry.

Passive: A switch to cheap boxed wine was advised by Dear Megan.
Active: Dear Megan advised a switch to cheap boxed wine.

Passive: These are the types of drinking situations you want to avoid.
Active: Avoid these types of drinking situations.

But Megan, they cried, are there no exceptions? Sigh, of course there are. Passive voice can be helpful when you want to focus on one thing or person over the other, because it is central to the story or idea you want to convey. “The cooking sherry was stolen by someone” focuses on the cooking sherry, whereas “Someone stole the cooking sherry” highlights the unknown someone. But don’t let this confuse you, guys—almost always, active voice is preferred. And don’t steal my cooking sherry.

Another good reason to write in active voice? This study, which suggests that less educated people (those who dropped out of school when they were 16) have a harder time understanding sentences written in the passive voice than those written in active voice. So if you’re writing or editing for the general population, stick with active voice.

That’s it for now, logophiles. Got a question for Dear Megan? Fire away—ask it in the Comments section, and I’ll answer in a future post. And lay off the sherry.

Tags: freelancing

Category: Editing
Megan Krause

About Megan

Megan Krause is a mom, writer, editor and all-around swell gal with 15 years' experience in communication and marketing. She served as ClearVoice's managing editor for four of those years, helping brands create great content and managing the company blog. She's passionate about words, language, grammar, style and ice cream. Follow her on Twitter.

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  • Melody Valdez

    Why doesn’t AP-style use the Oxford comma? Are you for or against the Oxford comma?


    Bleh Oxford Comma! I have submitted to using it, but that doesn’t mean I like it…

  • Megan Krause

    Abortion. Death penalty. Oxford comma. Harumph! Thanks for your question, Melody… stay tuned to the next Dear Megan for my complete diatribe on the matter, but I agree with BRK4EVR — bleh!

  • Jenna Lee Dillon

    Excellent examples! My butt was laughed off. Oh…oops, I mean, I laughed my butt off!

  • Lori Cline

    People that say you should never switch to boxed wine should probably be listened to, but if you feel like it will help you with other things, because it’s cheap and will save you money, if you drink boxed wine, don’t listen to them.

    Passive-aggressive fluff with some Oxford commas sprinkled in for your enjoyment.

    Don’t drink boxed wine, even if it’s cheap.