Passive Voice Part I

A lot of folks are confused by the concept of passive voice. (You see that? I started right off with an example.) Let’s try again: The concept of passive voice confuses a lot of people.

So what’s the difference between active and passive voice? In the active voice, the subject performs the action, as in “Zsa Zsa slapped the waiter,” while in the passive voice the subject suffers the effect of the action, as in “The waiter was slapped by Zsa Zsa.”

The tip-off in most offending sentences is a form of the mealy-mouthed verb “to be.” It worked for Hamlet, but for those of us who aren’t Danish royalty, “to be” can be the writing kiss of death.

There are several reasons that passive voice is so often used in business writing. (Or should I say There are several reasons people so often use passive voice in business writing? I think you already know the answer.) The first is that it’s a stellar way of avoiding responsibility, a CYA strategy of passing the buck. Passive voice converts most sentences into vague, no-fault language that you can’t quite figure out why it’s so unsatisfying.

Example: The package containing the iron lung was lost in transit.

What does this sentence actually mean? “Our driver, Lance, forgot to close the tailgate on the truck. Your iron lung slid out the back somewhere on the prairie, so good luck!”

Another reason: to elevate oneself in a truly passive-aggressive manner with a little false modesty thrown into the mix. In one of my college writers’ workshops, a student named Jane vilified a short story I wrote about a punk band with this cleverly written critique:

Several bands of this type are known by me, and none of them act in this manner…

(Of course, she also wrote “this writer’s mind is so small she probably likes Norman Rockwell,” but that’s a story for another time.) What was Jane really saying? “Unlike you, I actually know and hang out with these bands, so clearly you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Passive voice usually produces fuzzy, ponderous, wordy sentences, rather than clear, concise sentences. Many business writers appear to be paid by the word, or at least get credit by the word. They seem to think that the more words they use, the more gravitas they ooze. But most of the time, passive voice, and its dimwitted cousin verboseness, makes them look pompous and self-important.

So whenever you see any form of “to be” (am, are, is, was, were, will be, has been, was being, etc.) pop up in your writing, stop and evaluate the sentence.

Now, you won’t hear this too often, but there actually are circumstances in which passive voice is appropriate. I’ll expound upon those in another post. In the meantime, don’t get too hung up on completely excising passive voice from your repertoire, because your writing can become stiff and unnatural.

But use it the way you would cayenne pepper or Phil Collins CDs–sparingly and with caution.


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