Some of the advantages of active verbs are
- Clarity—Active verbs make your writing easily understood the first time someone reads it. The subject of the sentence usually comes before the verb. The subject performs the verb, the usual way of expressing through sentences in English.
- Brevity—The most concise way to write uses active verbs. Compare: Wilma ate the sandwich. [active verb—four words] The sandwich was eaten by Wilma. [passive verb—six words] If we omit “by Wilma” in the second version, we have four words, the same as the first version. But those four words give less information.
- Action—Your writing zips along when you use active verbs. Active verbs “slip.” They make scenes go faster and conversations race. That’s why sports writers write in active verbs. Orders use active verbs.
Then, why do we have passive verbs?
- To mask the performer of an action—Sometimes we don’t want to say who did the action of the verb because it might be more diplomatic not to identify the actor. “The last chocolate chip cookie has been eaten.” Or we might not know who did the action. For example, you could say, “The market was targeted and bombed.”
- To confuse. Sometimes a writer deliberately wants to keep the reader confused or unsure. Detective novelists use this technique. For example, you could say, “In darkness the body was buried in the woods. It was covered with six inches of leaves, after which all footprints were swept until they were not noticeable.”
- To slow down the action. For example, you might say, “The history exam was returned to Jane. It was folded, the grade hidden within where it could not be seen by classmates.”
- To focus on the action of thinking. Henry James, a 19th century American novelist, wrote in the passive voice and often used the verb “to be.” Many readers today find his writing ponderous because of its long sentences and lack of action. Actually there is action, but it is in characters’ heads. This kind of writing seems quaint and tedious to 21st century readers who want James to get to the point. But maybe the people he wrote for had leisure to appreciate a slower pace in fiction.