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    Use the Active Voice

    In this column, Vista provides practical tips to help you write clearly and concisely, including best practices for using Microsoft Word. Please leave suggestions for future posts in the comments. Subscribe now to make sure you don’t miss a tip!

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    Many people, including some professional writers, aren’t familiar with the grammatical terms “active voice” and “passive voice.” These terms describe ways to construct a sentence, and you don’t have to be a grammar geek to use them effectively. Most of the time, the active voice is better, and I’ll explain why – after I explain what it is!Clear writing

    In active voice, the subject of the sentence does something to the object of the sentence: “I enjoyed the movie,” for example. “I”, the subject, did something, “enjoyed,” to the object, “the movie.” It’s a short, bold, simple sentence that’s hard to misunderstand.

    In passive voice, the thing that something happens to (the movie) becomes the subject: “The movie was enjoyed by me.” Right away, you’ll notice a few things:

    1. It sounds weird. That’s because we naturally speak in active voice most of the time. (You probably wouldn’t say, “A pizza was eaten by my family,” you’d say, “My family ate a pizza.”)
    2. We’ve used more words – six instead of four. Not a big deal in a simple example like this, but many people struggle to write concisely, and passive voice doesn’t help.
    3. Less obviously, it’s easier to leave out important information or to cause confusion in the passive voice. We might easily have said “The movie was enjoyed,” forgetting to say by whom.

    In the example above, it’s obvious that active sounds better than passive. But in many forms of technical writing, we’re used to writing (and reading) in the passive voice. This is because we want to sound objective and, well, technical, but those aren’t good reasons for writing less clearly and completely than we can. This might sound picky, but trust me – when you get in the habit of writing in active voice, your writing will be more concise, more direct and clearer.

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