Active Voice or Passive Voice?

Here’s a simple way to improve your reports: Use active voice whenever possible.

I tested the doorway for fingerprints. ACTIVE VOICE

The doorway was tested for fingerprints by me. PASSIVE VOICE

In bygone days, some officers thought that passive voice made reports more accurate, objective, and professional. Sadly, that’s not the case. Professionalism comes from a deep commitment to observing the highest standards possible. Rewording a sentence won’t transform someone who’s biased or careless into a model officer.

Let’s try a scenario. An officer is investigating a burglary. She goes into the bedroom and sees a beautiful ring on the nightstand. She realizes that the homeowner will probably think the burglar took the ring. What an opportunity! She pockets the ring.

Later the officer gets out her laptop and starts writing her report. She writes, “The bedroom was entered by this officer.” Typing those words transforms her into an honest person, and she returns the ring.

Ridiculous, isn’t it?

Suppose, though, you’re an officer who happens to like passive voice. You’re old-school, and that’s how you were taught to write. Why change?

Three reasons:

  • You want your writing to sound up-to-date and professional. Bygone terminology dates you.
  • Passive voice takes longer to write and to read. It’s going to slow you down if you’ve had a busy shift or you have a great deal of paperwork to review before a court hearing.
  • Passive voice creates confusion. Suppose you’re testifying in court and the question of Miranda rights comes up. “Who read Johnson his rights?” asks the attorney. “It says in your report that Johnson was Mirandized, but it doesn’t say who did it.”
    You gulp. You suddenly realize that the other officer at the scene, Joe McDonald, read Johnson his rights. Unfortunately McDonald isn’t in court today. The hearing has to be postponed until McDonald can testify.
    You could have avoided that embarrassing mistake if you’d used active voice: “Officer Joe McDonald used his Miranda card to advise Johnson of his rights.”

Here are a couple of pointers:

  • Active voice tells who did what: The burglar pried open the door.
  • Passive voice often uses by: The door was pried open by the burglar.

Note: Not all “was” and “-ing” words signify passive voice. These sentences are active voice:

Linda was washing her car. ACTIVE VOICE

The mayor was exploring a new approach to the problem. ACTIVE VOICE

Here are passive-voice versions of these sentences:

The car was being washed by Linda. PASSIVE VOICE

A new approach to the problem was explored by the mayor. PASSIVE VOICE

* * * * * *

There’s one situation when passive voice is useful: when you don’t know who committed an act.

The crime scene was compromised. PASSIVE VOICE (effective: You don’t know who compromised it)

The house was entered through the unlocked back door. PASSIVE VOICE (effective: You don’t know who entered)

Bottom line: When you know who did what, use active voice. Or – to restate the handy rule I gave you earlier – start every sentence in your reports with a person, place, or thing.



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