In 1918, William Strunk Jr., a professor of English at Cornell University, published the first edition of his influential grammar guide The Elements of Style. (In 1959 writer and former Strunk student E.B. White expanded the book, which has been known ever since as ‘Strunk & White’.)
Strunk wanted to teach the simple rules needed to create vivid, clear, and exciting prose. Amongst his more famous instructions is this: Use the active voice. The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive.
Aah, the poor old passive voice. It gets a bad rap, and it’s not hard to see why. Formed with a past participle and the appropriate form of the verb ‘to be’, the passive voice does tend to seem weak. For example, compare the following two phrases:
Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.
The active sentence is a strong and quotable rebuke, while:
Frankly, my dear, a damn is not given by me.
The passive sentence is – frankly – a limp disaster.
Of course, the passive voice is not without its uses; it obscures the person or entity performing an action, which can be handy when discretion is needed. After all, “the cookie was stolen” is a lot less incriminating than “I stole the cookie.”
It’s all a matter of emphasis:
“The rules of Latin grammar are seldom taught today.”
“Today, professors seldom teach the rules of Latin grammar.”
In the first sentence, the emphasis is on the Latin rules. In the second, it’s on the teachers.
Still, the general rule holds true. Active sentences are, more often than not, shorter, punchier and more engaging than their passive counterparts. So if you’re writing a blog or typing up an email, don’t let the passive voice lure you into vague and ambiguous territory. Instead, take charge and lay out the facts as they are. Tell your readers who did what to whom, or state clearly what you intend to do yourself. For example:
I intend to conclude this article right here.
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