A good time was had by all

That sentence used to end small-town newspaper reports on  church socials and other gatherings. Today it makes us laugh — or should — because it’s such a backwards way of saying what it means: everyone had a good time. Written in passive voice, it sounds pretentious. It would sound far less so in active voice.

In grammatical terms, voice refers to the relationship between the subject of a sentence and the action of the verb. Translation: voice indicates whether the subject acts or is acted upon. If the subject performs an action, the sentence is in active voice. If the subject is acted upon, it’s written in passive voice. (Note that those last two sentences illustrate the very voices they define.) In passive voice, the subject of the sentence is essentially the object of the verb.

Journalism at its best is an active form of writing: reporters tell their readers who did what, sometimes to whom. That’s why so many headlines (though far from all) are written in active voice. In today’s news:

Obama Announces Health Pick

Jordan Assists Rebels in Syrian War

Tenants near Harlem gas explosion file suit against city

Using active voice also tightens your writing, saving a couple of words per sentence — the auxiliary verb and by — to reduce your word count or make room for more facts. A few improvements on recent student work:

 

It was announced on Feb. 14 that the bill has been expanded.

A double passive. Who made the announcement? And who expanded the bill? Adding those key facts would strengthen the sentence. Rewrite it in active voice:

The sponsors announced on Feb. 14 that they had expanded the bill.

 

A recovery is expected in sectors such as retail sales, construction and transportation.

Who expects the recovery?  Again, that’s an important fact. In active voice:

Economists expect a recovery in sectors such as retail sales, construction and transportation.

 

Houston was among the leading U.S. Metropolitan Statistical Areas exporters in 2011, when its housing market was ranked by AFIRE for the first time. 

Instead, turn that subordinate clause around:

. . . when AFIRE ranked its housing market for the first time. 

The writer headlined the story:

Houston’s housing market fueled by foreign buyers

I suggested rewriting it:

Foreign buyers fuel Houston’s housing market

“Why not use the active?” I asked. She moaned: “It’s more active?” But that’s precisely the point. In most cases, you want your writing to be active.

Not every headline needs to be written in active voice — from today’s Times, Cuomo (Is) Caught Up in Rare Conflict With Prosecutor; from The Post. Teens (are) killed when truck hits bus on college visit. In headline writing, auxiliary verbs are generally dropped unless, of course, the writer needs to pad out the hed to fill the assigned space.  (And why are all the words capped in one of the those heds and not the other? The papers have adopted different styles.)

Sometimes writers (or speakers) have their reasons for using passive voice — for example, in this excuse popular among politicians, originally attributed to President Ulysses S. Grant (1869 to 1877) and repeated in recent decades by Nixon, Reagan, Clinton and Bush:

Mistakes were made. 

By using passive voice, the writer or speaker avoids assigning blame to whoever made the mistakes — or even admitting to knowing who made them.

Occasionally passive voice is simply the better choice. In a recent editing exercise, a student produced this lede:

The country chose Barack Hussein Obama, 47, a first-term Democratic senator from Illinois, as its first black chief executive, the 44th president of the United States on Tuesday.

In this case, active voice made the sentence sound artificial and stiff; the writer was clearly scrambling to find a noun to serve as the subject. Here’s what The New York Times said on Nov. 5, 2008:

Barack Hussein Obama was elected the 44th president of the United States on Tuesday, sweeping away the last racial barrier in American politics with ease . . .

 

 

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