What is active and passive language? And why it matters.

What is active and passive voice?

…and how the active and passive voice makes a big difference to your job application.

Jacquie Liversidge

By Jacquie Liversidge

Considering passive and active voice is essential when writing your job application. Knowing the difference will put you at the centre of the story you tell in your documents, taking the guesswork out of the recruiters hands.

Wait, but what is active and passive voice?

As we’ve said before, there’s often confusion about what active voice actually means. When people refer to it, they usually mean one of two two distinct things.

The first kind active and passive voice - in grammar

In grammatical terms, the active voice is when the subject of the sentence performs an action. In the passive, the subject is the recipient of the action. For example:

Active: I rode the bike.

In the first sentences, the subject is ‘I’, and the object is the bike, and the verb is rode. I, the subject, perform the action of riding on the object that is the bike.

Passive: The bike was ridden by me.

In this sentence, the subject is the bike, the object is me. The subject – the bike – passively receives the verb, ridden.

The first kind - in your application

As we’ve said before, it’s not that one is correct and one is incorrect. Rather, they both have perfectly legitimate uses, even in business English.

Nonetheless, consider this example:

Active: I helped the customer.

Passive: The customer was helped by me.

Which one is better for your resume or application? Well, generally, the active voice. It puts you at the centre of your sentence, and it is also usually takes less words.

The second kind of active and passive voice - a passive narrative

This is usually what people mean when they say your writing is too passive. 

Usually, they don’t meant the technical structure of your sentences is throwing them off. Rather, they often mean that it’s not having the impact that it should.

Passive language here means that the phrasing too soft.

Consider these examples: 

“I ensured that I was able to demonstrate customer service.”

“I was responsible for providing customer service.”

These sentences are active, grammatically; but they are passive, narratively. Generally, the more you squeeze in before the main verb of the sentence, the less active it feels. The second sentence is even weaker because they haven’t said they actually provided customer service; just that they were responsible for it.

So, do a search of your resume and application for the word “responsible,” and “ensured,” and take them all out. 

“I was responsible for report writing,” becomes “I wrote reports.” 

“I ensured I delivered high quality customer service” becomes “I delivered high quality customer service.” 

Employers want to hear what you did, not what was required or ensured. This is a real way to get rid of the fluff. 

Don’t remove yourself from the topic. “I was required to complete tasks” and “I completed tasks” are two very different things.

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