Passive Voice

Whenever and as often as possible, without straining the limits or respectability of the English language, write in the active voice. Using the active voice in one sentence seems like such a small improvement, but converting an entire research memo, client letter, judicial brief, or other document from weak, passive sentences to the active voice causes the reader to experience the warmth and passion of your message and, as an extra bonus, tends to be less wordy. To convert a passive sentence to an active one, you first must recognize passive writing. Look for two passive signals: (1) form of the verb “be” such as “is,” “are,” “was,” or “were” and (2) the word “by.” These signals often appear in sentences where the verb precedes the subject, analogous to placing the proverbial cart before the confused horse. To convert such a sentence to the active voice, ask yourself what or who is performing action and allow that subject to precede the verb. Consider the following examples:

Passive:

All the students in his graduate tax class were put soundly to sleep by Professor Larkins.

Active:

Professor Larkins put all the students in his graduate tax class soundly to sleep.

In the passive version, the subject or “horse” (Professor Larkins) comes after the verb or “cart” (put). Conveying the same message in stronger terms requires only that one walk the horse around to its rightful place before the cart. In addition to the increased strength, the active form requires two fewer words.

Searching on forms of the verb “be” and the word “by” in your word processing software can help identify the passive voice. Consistent use of this search technique over time can help the business writer to recognize and avoid many instances of the passive voice. Converting the object of the prepositional phrase (i.e., the performer of the action) to the sentenceís subject is the way to rewrite the sentence in the active voice. Also, working carefully through some of the self-tests can improve your ability to identify passive sentences and rewrite them in the active voice.

At times, the passive voice is appropriate and even preferred. When the actionís doer is unknown, unimportant, or obvious (e.g., because the doer has been previously mentioned), you can use the passive voice. Consider the above example again. If the writer does not know who taught the class, the following use of the passive voice might be appropriate.

Passive:

All the students in the graduate tax class were put soundly to sleep.


This example is the same as the earlier passive voice sentence except that it omits the “by phrase.” In this case, using the active voice actually lengthens the sentence. Clearly, the active voice example provides more information (i.e., who induced slumber). But if that information is unimportant or is already clear from the context, the passive voice might be preferred.

Many writers feel that the passive voice is appropriate when conveying bad news, such as denying a request. For example, conveying bad news to a client might be an appropriate time to use the passive voice. Consider the following example.

Active:

I think your farming activity is a hobby and, thus, disallowed your deduction.

Passive: Since your farming activity is a hobby, no deductible loss is allowed.

The active voice example clearly identifies the doer as the tax professional. Observe in the passive voice example that the writer is silent regarding who decided the farming activity was a hobby and who disallowed the deduction. Of course, an alternative solution is simply to attribute the bad news to the tax law or the IRS, as in the following example.

Active:

The tax law considers your farming activity to be a hobby and, thus, disallows your deduction.

To summarize, passive sentences that identify the doer (often with the word “by”) suggest that the doer is important and should be mentioned. We strongly recommend rewriting such passive sentences in the active voice as a way to strengthen your writing and minimize wordiness. However, when the identity of the doer is unknown, unimportant, clear from the context, or appropriate to hide, passive sentence construction is acceptable.

After reviewing this lesson, please take the self-tests. These tests should help you recognize and correct instances of the passive voice in your own writing.

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