Column: How to avoid passive-aggressive voice


Commentary by Curtis Honeycutt

When it comes to writing, you should always use active voice. You should utilize active voice as often as possible so those reading your prose will understand perfectly and clearly what you’re trying to say. In active voice writing, the subject of the sentence does the action: The unicorn (subject) started (verb) a game of hide-and-seek over 4,000 years ago; he’s still hiding. My coworker (subject) threw (verb) a fit after I submerged his stapler in Jell-O. This straightforward approach keeps your sentences from being too complicated.

When it comes to writing, you should always avoid passive voice. Passive voice creeps in unexpectedly if you aren’t careful. This happens when your subject no longer does the action in the sentence. Instead, your subject is being acted on by the verb. In these sentences, the subject usually comes after the verb: A game of hide-and-seek was started by the unicorn over 4,000 years ago; he’s still hiding. A fit was thrown by my coworker after I submerged his stapler in Jell-O. See the difference?

Some telltale signs of sentences using passive voice include words and phrases including was, were, has been, have been, are and is, to name a few. Sometimes you just can’t avoid passive voice, but when you can, do it; your writing will jump off the page.

Finally, when it comes to life, you should always avoid passive-aggressive voice. I think this is more important than avoiding passive voice. I’ll provide some examples: The unicorn’s friends, instead of telling him his breath smelled like rotten mermaid eggs, opted to run away from him during a game of hide-and seek. Because I disagreed with my co-worker’s promotion, I decided to secretly submerge his stapler in Jell-O.

While active voice leaves your reader with a sense of purpose and action, passive voice seems anemic and unsure of itself. Passive-aggressive voice, on the other hand, will simply cause your friends, roommates and coworkers to stop inviting you to parties where there is free cake. Choose your path wisely.

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