Be active, not passive (and watch out for wild penguins)

Active sentences are great for business writing. They tend to be concise, direct, and personal. They’re how we usually speak.

But how do you know which sentences are active, and which are passive? And how do you turn passive sentences into active ones?

Active sentences put the actor first

In an active sentence, the person or thing that’s doing something appears right at the beginning.

The analyst writes up his notes.
The photocopier is eating my report.
Jemima made coffee and did the crossword.
We will meet the monthly sales target.

In a passive sentence, that person or thing appears later, or is left out.

The notes are written up by the analyst.
My report is being eaten by the photocopier.
Coffee was made and the crossword was done.
The monthly sales target will be met.

Coffee was made and the crossword was done. (Image by Randy Auschrat (CC BY-ND 2.0))

Coffee was made and the crossword was done. Image by Randy Auschrat / CC BY-ND

Passive sentences can be identified by wild penguins

If you’re not sure whether you have an active or a passive sentence, try adding the phrase ‘by wild penguins’. If you can make it fit, the sentence is passive.

The project was undertaken in June … by wild penguins.
The Annual Report will be delivered to the CEO … by wild penguins.
It is considered … by wild penguins … that the survey is flawed.
The decision was made … by wild penguins … to close the office early.

Rewrite passive sentences by putting the person or thing that’s acting first (hint: it’s pretty unlikely to be wild penguins).

The construction team undertook the project in June.
Marama will deliver the Annual Report to the CEO.
We consider the survey to be flawed.
The boss decided to close the office early.

Image, pair of penguins looking at one another.

Wild penguins decided to close the office early and head out for sushi. Image by David Stanley / CC BY

Active sentences help you connect with your reader

Using active sentences helps you use more names and pronouns (such as ‘you’ and ‘we’). This creates a personal, reader-friendly tone, and makes it clear who’s responsible for what. For example:

You need to complete the following details.
We’ll email you when we’ve set up the account.
We’re here to help.

Passive voice tends to sound more formal, official, and distant:

The following details must be completed.
An email will be sent when the account has been set up.
Help will be given on request.

Passive sentences are useful too, but use them wisely

You don’t need to avoid passive sentences completely — sometimes they’re exactly what you need. A good rule of thumb is to make sure that no more than 20 percent of your sentences are passive.

Passive sentences are good when:

Avoid blame by using the passive voice. (Original image by Mademoiselle -M- (CC BY-SA 2.0))

Avoid blame by using the passive voice. Original image by Mademoiselle -M- / CC BY-SA

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3 responses to “Be active, not passive (and watch out for wild penguins)”

  1. The wild penguins approach could help spot some passive sentences. Of course, the approach doesn’t work when we already have a ‘by…’ in the passive sentence. Eg, ‘My report was eaten by the photocopier’.

    • eleanor meecham says:

      Good point Stephen! The word ‘by’ is a dead giveaway.

      If a sentence says that something’s been done ‘by’ someone or something, you can be sure the sentence is passive.

  2. Love the use of the wild penguins 🙂

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