Friday, June 5, 2009

Elements of Style: Active Writing

This is the sixth installment of the Elements of Style Series where I relay helpful hints for good writing from the classic book, The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White.

Strunk and White tell writers to use the active voice (Rule #11). You may have questions about this rule if you have not thought about grammar since middle school. What does using active voice mean? Why use active voice instead of the alternative? What is the alternative? Why does using active voice improve writing? In this post, I answer these questions.

What does using active voice mean? According to, using the active voice means "constructing the sentence where the subject acts." The alternative is the passive voice, where the subject is acted upon.

Side-by-side comparisions illuminate well the distinction between active and passive voice:

Example 1
Passive: The neoclassical approach to macroeconomics was criticized by Paul Krugman.
Active: Paul Krugman criticized the neoclassical approach to macroeconomics.

Example 2
Passive: Every week, the bicycle was ridden by Tony to K-mart so he could buy racquetballs.
Active: Every week, Tony rode his bicycle to K-mart to buy racquetballs.

Example 3
Passive: Three cups of water and four cups of flour are mixed in a medium bowl. At 350 degrees, the ingredients are baked.
Active: In a medium bowl, mix three cups of water with four cups of flour. Bake at 350 degrees.

Why use active voice instead of passive voice? Each of the examples illustrates a different reason to use active voice.

Example 1: Be straightforward. Readers expect to learn about subject of a sentence. What is he, she or it doing? In active voice, the verb tells the reader exactly this: what action is the subject taking? That's straightforward writing, which is easy and natural to read.

Writers often use the passive voice when they really intend to tell the reader about the object of the sentence. Most of the time, writing a sentence about the object is a mistake. Doing so puts the cart before the horse. And, horses are bad at pushing carts -- their comparative advantage is pulling.

Example 2: Avoid awkward phrasing. The bicycle is the subject of the passively-worded version of the Tony-bicycle sentence. Because the phrase "to buy racquetballs" does not apply to the bicycle's intentions, we have to add extra words to the sentence to make it clear that Tony (not the bicycle) is the one who buys the racquetballs. This is absurd.

On account of using passive voice, we obscure Tony's dual role of riding the bicycle and buying the racquetballs. Plus, the sentence has four more words with no additional meaning.

Example 3: Avoid misinterpretation. The third example gives my world famous recipe for Simple Flour Bake (I'm a Cookson, not a cook). As the passive and active voice sentences illustrate, recipe books use active voice for a reason: active phrasing clarifies what the subject (you, the cook) is supposed to do. Active voice is much clearer than passive voice.

Why does active voice improve writing? Writing actively commands attention by engaging the reader. Active writing is straightforward, clear and punchy. The active voice is more precise and uses fewer words than the passive voice. Active writing is clear, concise, concrete and complete. That is great writing.

This post merely supplements and motivates Strunk and White's Rule 11. The Elements of Style gives a more complete treatment of using the active voice. You really should pick it up. It's a great book!

The next installment of the Elements of Style Series, "Positive Writing" will appear on this blog on Friday, 12 June 2009. I will continue this series each Friday until I run out of interesting topics in grammar and writing.


  1. Go ahead and call me a dork. You could never run out of interesting grammar topics! haha

  2. In academic writing, active voice is almost always better. However, in some business situations it's best to use passive. For example, if your company made a mistake on someones order and you do not want to admit blame to the customer, passive would be better.

    "Your order was not filed properly." Instead of "We filed your order incorrectly."

    This way it sounds like it was not your companies fault, which will reduce the likelihood of the customer becoming angry.

  3. Interesting point. Sometimes, it pays to be vague, literally.

    On the other hand, I doubt that deflecting blame is good business. For more on this point, I recommend you read "How to Win Friends and Influence People" by Dale Carnegie.

    Carnegie recommends being straightforward and respectful when writing an uncomfortable letter (i.e., explaining to a client that you messed up). Accept blame if you really are to blame. Customers will eventually respect that. A great way to lose business is to deflect blame with the passive voice instead of using a good apology.

    With regard to your problem phrasing, how about this?

    "We apologize for filling your order improperly. The error was entirely our fault and we hope to make it up to you with better service next time. We shipped the item today via priority shipping. It should arrive tomorrow. Again, we are deeply sorry for our mistake."

    You can conclude by offering a coupon for the next time the customer shops with you, or merely promising to do better next time. Accepting blame is disarming. As a result, customers will be less likely to retort in anger.

    Plus, accepting blame is the respectful thing to do. It is always better to give your customer respect than to expect that your customer will deflect blame on account of clever wording.

  4. Give me an active sentence with "disarming"


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