Style Matters #16: Use active voice to get straight to the point

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One of the habits all writers need to be conscious of is the tendency to slip into passive voice which erodes the action, immediacy and urgency of their prose.

It is also lengthier than the alternative, active voice.

Use of active voice is usually preferable, especially when writing news copy, but what exactly does that mean?

Well, when the subject of the sentence performs the action, the prose has been written in active voice. It is a more direct way of communicating.

Example:

The bat struck the ball. (active)

But when the subject of a sentence has the action performed on it, then the prose is said to have been written in passive voice. These sentences are typically longer as well.

Example:

The ball was struck by the bat. (passive and wordier!)

A good indicator of passive construction is when the word by is used just after a verb.

(Tip: If you work in or for a newsroom, then expect to be criticised if you lapse into passive voice too often.)

That said, there are times when reporters need to use passive voice, especially in news stories where the news value is higher in the object of the sentence and not the subject.

Example:

A schoolgirl wielding a sandwich threw it at the Prime Minister. (active, but news value is at end of sentence)

The Prime Minister had a sandwich thrown at him by a schoolgirl. (passive, but the PM is the more newsworthy individual in this sentence)

Having worked in the public service and covered its machinations as a journalist, I can attest that it is not uncommon to see plenty of unwieldy, passive language in officialese.

Which is probably why, years ago, I would chuckle knowingly at that brilliant British television parody Yes, Minister. One of its central characters, Sir Humphrey Appleby (played by the late Sir Nigel Hawthorne), was famous for delivering an astoundingly good example of civil service puffery laced with passive constructions.

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If you like what you’ve read here, you can see reporting4work’s similar posts at Style Matters

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