Active vs Passive Voice

When should you use active voice and when should you use passive voice? I always thought it was easy, but after watching a presentation by a friend at the English Research Symposium at USU, I’m not so sure. (You can check out the abstract of that presentation here.) If you don’t know exactly what the difference between these two writing styles is, here it is.

Active Voice
Active voice is a sentence where the subject comes first, then the verb, and finally an object (if any). Writing in active voice is easy (if you have a subject), direct, and not wordy.

Subject + Verb + Object = Active Voice
I + ate + an apple. = Active Sentence

Passive Voice
Passive voice moves or completely removes the subject of the sentence. When you want to focus on the action rather than the subject, passive voice is a great way to do just that. However, when used excessively, it can become cumbersome to read.

Object + Verb + (Subject) = Passive Voice
An apple + was eaten + (by me). = Passive Sentence

What’s the Big Deal?
I always get frustrated when engineering students are told to only write in active voice or to only write in passive voice. Only after I watched the presentation did I realize why this was a problem. By removing the subject from a sentence, people can shift blame away from themselves.

It’s not obvious when people choose to use passive voice, but once you’re aware, you’ll see how people take advantage of passive voice everywhere. For example, take a sentence like this: This problem could have been avoided if this was done. Now, change it to active voice: This problem could have been avoided if I did this. While this is a vague example, I still believe this sentence shows how deliberately using passive voice can remove oneself from the problem.

While choosing passive voice can have this effect, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use passive voice. There are some sentences where the action is clearly more important and should be written using passive voice. This blog post was completed. (It doesn’t matter that I completed the post.)

The Subjective View of Commas

“Let’s eat, Grandpa!”

“Let’s eat Grandpa.”

These sentences are iconic examples of why commas are important. One, simple comma changed the entire meaning of the sentence. Sentences like the ones above are used to show just how important commas (and grammar rules in general) are. However, are all commas really necessary?

As someone who absolutely adores commas, I’ve realized the answer to this question is “No.” Not all commas are necessary. Commas are subjective, not objective. This phenomenon is what makes commas so hard to use.

Sentences with “that” or “which” show just how hard it is to figure out if a comma is necessary or not. The following sentences only have one minor difference. One uses “that,” and one uses “which.” Can you tell which one is correct?

Grab my wallet, which is in my purse.

Grab my wallet that is in my purse.

The answer to this question, surprisingly enough, is both sentences are correct depending on the context. In the first case, the writer assumes the reader already knows where the wallet is. “Which” signifies a non-essential element to a sentence, so the last part of the sentence, “which is in my purse,” can be taken out without removing meaning to the sentence.

In contrast, the writer of the second sentence assumes the reader doesn’t know where the wallet is. The word “that” shows the following information is essential for the reader. If the last part of the sentence, “that is in my purse,” is left out, readers might not have the information they need to accomplish their task.

Quick Guide to Essential and Non-Essential Phrases
A quick and easy way to decide if something is essential or not is to take the part of the sentence out. Does the sentence still make sense without the extra information? Then the phrase is non-essential and often uses a comma and “which” to show that it’s just extra information. Does the reader ask “so what?” or expects more information? Then the phrase is essential and “that” is used without a comma.

It’s important to remember as the author, you are the one who controls the commas. If you can justify why a phrase is essential or non-essential, then you are correct! It’s your writing, so own it! You control commas; commas don’t control you.

Why Becky Rebecca?

“Hi, what’s your name?”

This is one of the most common questions asked when meeting someone new. Thankfully, my name isn’t hard to pronounce, and I don’t have a nickname, but my name is unique (to say the least). When I get asked what my name is, the conversation usually goes something like this:

“Hi, what’s your name?”
“Becky.”
“Is that short for Rebecca?”
“Actually, Rebecca is my middle name.”
“Wait, what? Then what’s your first name?”
“Becky.”
“Your name is Becky Rebecca?”
“Yup.”
“Really?”
“Yup.”
“What were your parents thinking?”

The conversation that follows is some narrative about how my full name just flows off the tongue and my grandpa probably had something to do with it. While I’m glad I don’t have to repeat my name five times for people to remember my name, sometimes people have more fun with my name than I do. However, that’s not a bad thing.

Here’s why I love my name:

It represents me. My name is short and perky, much like me! It’s nearly impossible to sound mad while yelling “Becky Rebecca Banks.”

It’s simple. I don’t enjoy overly complex things. As a technical communicator, my job is to take complex things and make them easy-to-understand.

It’s easy to spell. I hate spelling errors more than any other grammatical error. I can understand why someone uses a comma wrong, but spelling is different. A word is spelled right or wrong, and the answer is a simple google search away.

Much like my name, this blog represents me, is simple, and is hopefully devoid of spelling errors. I’ve always loved the English language and its quirks; I hope you’ll find my thoughts and quirks interesting as well!