The battle for self-expression in American culture is caught between two competing ideologies: to be straightforward and take responsibility, or to be modest and go along for the good of others. These ideologies are mistakenly ascribed to active and passive voice, respectively.
- The lamp was broken by someone who definitely was not me.
- A bold statement was made by my cousin’s use of the active voice.
- All kinds of new experiments are being conducted by scientists.
When we use active voice, American readers automatically and perhaps mistakenly give us more credit for honesty, clarity, and wisdom. When passive voice is used by us, we’re said to be unconvincing by our readers. When the lamp is broken, we don’t know by whom. Make a bold statement; don’t let a bold statement be made. Lastly, scientists are the ones conducting experiments, and should appear first in the sentence. Scientists are conducting all kinds of new experiments.
MORE TO KNOW
In some languages besides English (such as Indonesian, Swahili, and Japanese), active voice is considered rude, and passive voice is preferred. Appropriate times to use passive voice in English include when you don’t know who did it (“This guitar was built in 1982”), when who did it doesn’t matter (“The trees were taken down in the storm”), or when you focus on the action (“The poem was cited widely”).