Tips on Arguing: Active Versus Passive Voice

Brandon T. Bisceglia

The way you phrase a sentence can influence its meaning. The choice between using active and passive voice is one of the more common examples of how sentence structure matters. The difference is subtle, but can have profound ramifications that arise from the order in which you place the actors and their actions in a sentence.

For example:

Passive Voice: The man was bitten by the dog.

Active Voice: The dog bit the man.

In the first case, the main character of the sentence is the man, who is having something happen to him. In the second, the main character is the dog, because he is mentioned first. The dog, unlike the man, is doing something – initiating the bite. This sentence is also more concise, a valuable quality in many cases.

Generally, it’s preferable to use the active form of the sentence. It’s shorter, easier to understand, and conveys an “action-y” tone that keeps readers closer to the edge of their seats. Once in a while, though, there may be a valid reason to use passive voice. Suppose you want to draw attention to the plight of the man?

The point is to know the difference. Politicians know, and some take advantage of this. Listen carefully to the associations they draw. When something good happens, they stress their participation in it. They talk about things that they’ve done: “I enacted the Happy Sunshine Law so folks never have to get rained on.” When the association is negative, they often avoid speaking of themselves as the actors, thus placing distance between themselves and the action: “A national drought has been caused by the Happy Sunshine Law. Mistakes were made.”

Being aware of the nuanced connotations of sentences can help you to form a more compelling argument – one that allows you to shape the focus of a conversation. It can give you a richer reading or listening experience. And most importantly, it can sharpen your critical faculties.