The concept of passive voice will be discussed in this article. Your understanding of what passive voice is will be increased, and your ability to recognize it in your writing will be improved.
Was that introduction tough to read? Did the style sound removed and academic? We thought so. That’s because the entire thing uses passive voice. And this impacts plain language.
Passive voice can be a little challenging to grasp, which means it can easily sneak into your business writing. This guide will help you understand what passive voice is, how to recognize it, and how you can kick it to the curb once and for all.
What exactly is passive voice?
Let’s start by brushing up your grammar knowledge. When you use active voice, the subject of your sentence performs an action, which is represented by a verb.
Here’s a simple example of active voice: Rosalie (subject) submitted (verb) the proposal.
In contrast, when you use passive voice, the subject is no longer performing an action. Instead, the subject is being acted upon.
Here’s the same sample using passive voice: The proposal (subject) was submitted (verb) by Rosalie.
Confused? We know that this can be tough to identify, especially if you don’t pride yourself on being a grammar whiz. That’s why so much passive voice creeps into formal business writing.
How do I avoid passive voice?
Examples provide a lot of clarity. So, let’s look at some more comparisons between passive and active voice.
- Active: Our hiring team will review your application.
- Passive: Your application will be reviewed by our hiring team.
- Active: The compliance team evaluated your proposal.
- Passive: Your proposal was evaluated by the compliance team.
- Active: Submit your proposal and compliance matrix by the deadline.
- Passive: Your proposal and compliance matrix should be submitted by the deadline.
Starting to see the difference? Passive voice sounds a lot more, well, passive.
What’s the problem with passive voice in plain language?
All of the examples above—whether they’re written in passive or active voice—get their point across.
But, you’ve probably heard that you should avoid passive voice, if possible. In fact, it’s recommended that you keep use of passive voice between five and 10%.
Why? Here are a few reasons using passive language can sabotage your business writing.
1. It’s is too wordy
Look at the above examples again and you’ll notice that every passive sentence is longer than the active sentence.
That isn’t a coincidence. Passive voice is unnecessarily wordy. Active voice gets your point across in fewer words.
2. It lacks clarity
The indirect structure of a passive sentence can easily hide the identity of who’s taking the action. For example, saying, “Your claim will be handled” doesn’t tell the user who will be handling their claim.
Active voice uses a much clearer structure. Saying, “Your claims representative will handle your claim” offers more details and feels far less ambiguous.
3. It evades responsibility
Similarly, there’s a reason so many politicians love passive voice: It’s evasive, and is a subtle way for them to avoid taking responsibility.
You’ll see this most frequently with the phrase, “Mistakes were made…” A politician might say, “Mistakes were made in the handling of this pandemic…” instead of, “We made mistakes while handling this pandemic.”
For this same reason, organizations lean on passive language when they need to deliver bad or potentially unpopular news. You might write, “Interest rates will be raised on November 30, 2020” in a letter to your customers, rather than, “We are raising interest rates on November 30, 2020.”
Evading responsibility is not only confusing, it can also harm your reputation. If you write your terms, contracts, or other important documents using passive language, you can come off as intentionally deceptive.
4. It feels academic and stuffy
Think about how you typically speak. Are you more comfortable saying, “I put the mail in the mailbox” or, “The mail was put into the mailbox by me”? The first one, right?
Passive voice is the domain of professors, politicians, and lawyers. As a result, it can feel academic, formal, and detached—which is not how you want your customers to feel about your organization and writing. Active voice is clearer and more natural.
How to spot passive voice in your own business writing
Combine all of those drawbacks together, and you see that passive voice leads to weaker writing. But, as a business writer, how do you avoid it? Here are a few tips to help you.
1. Look for who’s taking the action
Take your writing sentence by sentence. When you’re looking at a single sentence, identify who is taking the action. If that thing or person appears toward the end of the sentence, then chances are good that you’re using a passive sentence structure.
Here’s an example: “The discussion was hosted by the executive team on Monday.” Who took the action? The executive team, but they’re not mentioned until the end of the sentence. Using active voice, the sentence is, “The executive team hosted the discussion on Monday.”
This isn’t a foolproof system, as there are exceptions. But, this will help you avoid passive language in your writing.
2. Use the “by zombies” test
Like we mentioned above, sometimes a passive sentence structure doesn’t explicitly state who’s taking the action—and those instances won’t be caught by the above trick. That’s where this strategy helps.
If you can add the phrase “by zombies” to the end of the sentence and it still makes grammatical sense, then it’s passive.