Thursday, May 09, 2019

Better Writing Boot Camp – Session 6: Passive Resistance

Have you ever read a sentence in a business communication and thought to yourself: “Who says?” or “Who did that?” or “Who made that decision?”

Here are a few examples:
Sentence A: A mistake in processing your order was made.
Sentence B: Your application has been reviewed and it is denied.

Both these sentences are in passive voice and so they leave the reader not knowing who took the actions. In Sentence A we don’t know who made the mistake and in Sentence B we don’t know who reviewed the application or who denied it.

Why use active voice?
Sentences written in active voice are more interesting. Consider these sentences:
Sentence C: Gretzky scored the game winning goal.
Sentence D: The game winning goal was scored by Gretzky.

Both provide the same information. But, Sentence C, which is in active voice, is livelier. Why? The subject of the sentence – Gretzky – took the action – he scored the goal. With passive voice, the subject of the sentence is not the actor. In Sentence D, the subject is the goal.

Here’s another pair of sentences:
Sentence E: A pail of water from atop the hill was fetched by Jack and Jill.
Sentence F: Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water.

Sentence E is passive: the subject of the sentence is the pail – and a pail can’t take an action. Instead, the pail was acted on – it was fetched – by Jack and Jill. In Sentence F – the one in active voice – Jack and Jill are the subject and they took the action.

Some business writers think that by writing in passive voice, a statement seems less personal or less pointed. That argument doesn’t necessarily hold up. If I were on the receiving end of a processing mistake, I would rather be told: “We made a mistake in processing your order.” Though I don’t know specifically who the “we” is – active voice at least tells me the company is claiming responsibility for the mistake.

Another plus with sentences written in active voice is they are shorter, which, as you remember from anther Boot Camp Session, is better. 

Recognizing passives
To recognize passive voice, look for the following two things in the sentence:

  •         Some form of “to be” – for example:  “as”, “are”, “is”, “was”, “were”, and so on
  •         A past participle – usually a verb ending in “ed” or “en”

In Sentence E, for example, “was” is the “to be” verb and “fetched” is the participle.

You can also enable Word’s grammar function to spot passives. Whenever Word flags a passive, I take a moment to review the sentence and figure out what makes it passive. Then, unless I have a good reason to leave it in passive voice, I re-cast it in active voice.

Fixing passive sentences
I’ll admit that writing in active voice doesn’t always come natural to me. As a result, I put a lot of effort into spotting my passive sentences and correcting them.

If you use active voice as much as possible, you’ll be a better writer. Your writing will be more concise and you’ll leave readers with fewer questions.

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