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Improve Your Writing by Using a Consistent Voice

The voice of a verb — not baritone or soprano — is either active or passive. The voice of the verbs in a sentence should be consistent unless there’s a good reason for a shift. A shift in voice is not a grammar felony; think misdemeanor or maybe even parking ticket. Nevertheless, avoid unnecessary shifts if you can do so without writing yourself into a corner.

Here’s a sentence with an unjustified shift in voice:

Larry polished the diamond engagement ring, rechecked the certificate of authenticity, and was completely demolished when his intended bride said no.

Do you see the problem? A checklist makes it obvious:

  • Polished

  • Rechecked

  • Was demolished

  • Said

The first two verbs and the last one are in active voice, but the third is in passive voice.

A number of changes can take care of the problem:

Larry polished the diamond engagement ring, rechecked the certificate of authenticity, and cried like a baby when his intended bride said no.

or

Larry polished the diamond engagement ring and rechecked the certificate of authenticity. His intended bride completely demolished him with her refusal.

Notice that the list of verbs in the corrected sentences are all in active voice: polished, rechecked, cried and polished, rechecked, demolished. In general, active voice is better than passive. Listen to this clunker:

The diamond engagement ring was polished and the certificate of authenticity was rechecked by Larry, and Larry was completely demolished when “no” was said to him by his intended bride.

The passive verbs create an awkward, wordy mess.

Bulleted lists containing verbs also need consistent voice. Don’t switch from active to passive unnecessarily.

Which sentence is correct?

A. Lulu popped the cork from the champagne, reached for the chilled glasses, and was shocked to learn that the caviar had been confiscated by customs officials.
B. Lulu popped the cork from the champagne, reached for the chilled glasses, and was shocked to learn that customs officials had confiscated the caviar.
C. Lulu popped the cork from the champagne, reached for the chilled glasses, and staggered in shock when she heard that customs officials had confiscated the caviar.

Answer: Sentence C is best because all of the verbs (popped, reached, staggered, heard, and had confiscated) are in active voice.

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