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Writing Tip: November 24, 2004

The Passive Voice

If you use your word processing software’s grammar checking feature, then you have probably had it tell you that some of your sentences--specifically, some of your verbs--were in the passive voice. Our subscribers have written from time to time to ask us to define the passive voice and to explain why it is considered undesirable.

Can you identify the passive-voice verbs in the following sentences?

1. The parade was kept orderly by public safety officers.

2. The ten-year plan was developed after consultation with the board of trustees.

3. Two written reflections by each participant, connecting course content to personal experience, were completed on days two and six of the workshop.

4. Frequent meetings are held with customers and stakeholder organizations.

5. At the New York conference, insights were gained that will be used to strengthen the company’s marketing strategies.

Sentences written in the passive voice are those in which the grammatical subject of the sentence receives the action of the verb. In the first sentence above, if we ask ourselves what is receiving the action of the verb--in this case, what is being kept--the answer would be parade, which is the subject of that clause. A verb is considered passive if the subject of the clause is the recipient of the verb’s action. When the verb in a sentence is in the transitive active voice, the subject is the person or thing performing the action expressed by the verb, and the direct object is the person or thing receiving the action expressed by that verb. The following sentence uses the active voice instead of the passive voice: "Public safety officers kept the parade orderly." The subject officers--the performers of the action kept--is a separate entity from the direct object parade, the recipient of the action kept.

Here are two more sets of examples:

Passive voice: Your assistance with this matter is greatly appreciated.
Active voice: We greatly appreciate your assistance with this matter.

Passive voice: A second staff person would also be hired, and an office would be established.
Active voice: Our agency would hire a second staff person and establish an office.

It is important to recognize that the use of the passive voice is not an error. That is, the passive voice is not, per se, ungrammatical--despite what your word processing software might lead you to believe.

Sometimes, in fact, the passive voice can be quite handy. Imagine, for example, that someone in your workplace broke the brand new photocopy machine by using the wrong kind of paper. It is much more diplomatic to say "The photocopy machine has been broken" than it is to say "Frieda broke the photocopy machine."

Yet even though the passive voice can help us avoid pointing a finger at the person (or people or company or agency) responsible for unpleasant actions, that notion itself can become a writing pitfall. Consider these passive-voice sentences, for example:

--Your request has been denied.

--Another candidate was chosen for the position.

--The decision was made to enact only a 3 percent raise for the next fiscal year.

While our purpose in writing such sentences may indeed be to obscure the identity of the people who performed these actions, we do not so much fool our readers as suggest that we are detached and unconcerned about the consequences of those actions. The passive voice may therefore actually serve to alienate a reader.

--Consider the improved tone of these active-voice revisions:

--We have denied your request.

--The search committee has chosen another candidate to fill the position.

--The board of directors decided to enact only a 3 percent raise for the next fiscal year.

On other occasions, particularly in the business arena, folks use the passive voice because they are operating under the false assumption that it sounds more professional. In truth, it often sounds merely stuffy--even pretentious--and creates a barrier between the writer and the reader.

Perhaps the most important reason to avoid the passive voice, however, is that sentences using this construction are often quite awkward as well as illogical and ambiguous.

In sentence 2 at the beginning of this tip, for example, the use of the passive voice creates the illogical statement that the plan consulted with the board of trustees. It would be more logical to write "The long-range planning committee developed the ten-year plan after consulting with the board of trustees."

Sentence 3 dimly suggests that "each participant completed two written reflections," but its convoluted construction requires the reader to make such an assumption, perhaps after having read the statement several times. The meaning would be clearer if we wrote "On days two and six of the workshop, each participant completed two written reflections connecting course content to personal experience."

Sentences 4 and 5 would be stronger--both clearer and more readable--in the active voice:

--Company representatives hold frequent meetings with customers and stakeholder organizations.

--At the New York conference, our department leaders gained insights they can use to strengthen the company’s marketing strategies.

One final reason to avoid the passive voice is that it often produces a sentence that does not tell us who performed the action expressed by the verb. Such sentences call forth pictures with missing pieces. For example, someone reading the sentence "The meal will be prepared in the banquet hall" will have a difficult time picturing the meal being prepared by no one in particular. If we revise the sentence, however, and insert the agent of the action--"Three chefs from the local culinary school will prepare the meal in the banquet hall"--the reader sees a much clearer, more complete image of what the writer intends.

Good writers aim to be so precise that the reader does see exactly what they want him or her to see. The active voice, we understand therefore, is often stronger than the passive voice for many reasons--not the least of which is that the active voice paints a more concrete, more vivid picture in the mind of the reader and thus enables the writer to communicate more effectively.

TEST YOURSELF

The following sentences are written in the passive voice. Rewrite them using active-voice verbs. (Answers may vary.)

1. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony was performed masterfully by the university orchestra.

2. Quarterly reports will be submitted along with statistics charting sales for each product.

3. Three new procedures for assessing product safety have been recommended by the company’s external consultants.

4. The report has been carefully reviewed by a team of unbiased individuals who were not part of the original project.

5. An attempt was made to ensure that all item types were sampled proportionally.

ANSWERS

1. The university orchestra masterfully performed Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

2. Regional sales representatives will submit quarterly reports along with statistics charting sales for each product.

3. The company’s external consultants recommended three new procedures for assessing product safety.

4. A team of unbiased individuals who were not part of the original project has carefully reviewed the report.

5. Researchers made an attempt to ensure that all item types were sampled proportionally.

Copyright 2004 Get It Write

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