Our writing should be concise and direct. We prefer the active voice because it supports brevity and makes written content more engaging, too.
The active voice helps the reader identify the subject of the sentence. In the following example, the person who submits the form is essential information. Omitting that leads to a confusing and impersonal sentence.
Passive: The request form must be submitted to the approving official.
Active: You must submit the request form to the approving official.
Along with deemphasizing who should take an action, the passive voice is usually longer, too. Wordy instructions are harder to follow.
Passive: The case number should be saved in your records. It will be required for future inquiries.
Active: Save the case number in your records. You will need it for future inquiries.
When in doubt, cut directly to the verb and give the reader clear directions.
How to recognize the passive voice
Use of the passive voice is common enough that many people don’t notice when they use it. Here’s a simple way to recognize it, courtesy of Dr. Rebecca Johnson: If you insert “by zombies” after the verb and the sentence still makes sense, you’re using the passive voice.
When to use the passive voice
Never use the passive voice in a way that makes actions seem like they happen without anyone doing them.
You may occasionally need to use the passive voice to soften an error message or make something easier to understand.
Rewording either of these sentences to use the active voice would complicate the sentence or pull focus away from its main point:
Forms issued by the Office of Government Ethics include the OGE-450 and the OGE-278.
The agency is required to respond to requests within 20 working days.