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Passive vs. Active: Receiver vs. Doer

TOOLBOX

The reason voice can affect tone is because, depending on your choice, voice will either emphasize the receiver of the action or the doer of the action:

Passive voice makes the subject the receiver of the action.
Active voice makes the subject the doer of the action. If you would like to hear how these sound to a reader, click the audio button below each sentence. (Turn on your speakers or headphones.)

Examples:

  • Passive: This report was written incorrectly. This caused us to miss the deadline. This report is receiving the action; somebody wrote it, but it didn't actually do anything. This report being late caused the missed deadline.


  • Active: Jane wrote the report incorrectly. This caused us to miss the deadline. Jane performed the action; she wrote the report. Jane caused the missed deadline.



The Difference

What is the difference between these two statements? If you've clicked on the Audio buttons above, you can probably detect how these two sentences sound to a reader. To narrow down your answer, if you were Jane, what would you say is the difference between these two statements? 

If you said that the passive statement avoids placing blame on Jane and the active does not, you are correct. 

 

Your decision to choose passive or active voice depends on your situation.

 

It might be easy to jump to a conclusion and assume that one of these is right and one of these is wrong, but either conclusion would be an incorrect assumption. The fact is, your decision to choose passive or active depends on your situation. You have to decide what is important to emphasize and what is important to minimize, based on the particular circumstances of the current situation.

If the critical piece of information is simply that the reason the deadline was missed was because the report was inaccurate, and Jane's involvement is irrelevant, then you can use the passive voice. The passive voice creates a more neutral tone and will likely temper the reader's response – especially, in this case, if the reader is Jane!  

If the critical piece of information is who wrote the report incorrectly, then you have no choice but to use active voice, which, in this particular case, is somewhat negative because it is more direct about pinpointing responsibility for the mistake.

Let's take a look at another set of examples.

Examples:

 

Passive voice makes the subject the receiver of the action.

Active voice makes the subject the doer of the action.

 

  • Passive: Many changes were made to improve risk management to an acceptable level. The rating is receiving the action; it was given to the bank, but it didn't actually do anything. 
  • Active: Senior management made many changes to improve credit risk management to an acceptable level. The subject (unnamed, but clearly the reader) performed the action; it received the rating. 

The Difference

What is the difference between these two statements? It is not quite as clear as was the "Jane" example, but there is clearly a difference. If you were receiving this good news, which statement would you prefer to read? 

If you said that the passive statement seems a bit bland and not quite congratulatory enough for this kind of good news, you are correct. 

If you are delivering good news, go with active voice. 

No News is Good News… or is it Just Information?

What if you are not delivering good news or bad news, just information? Here are some examples:

  • Passive: The report is enclosed.
  • Active: We enclosed the report. 

Is there a difference? Not really. If you are just delivering information, whether you choose passive or active voice will not make a lot of difference to your reader or your tone.


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