The passive voice has a place in business writing
Most of us have probably been told at some point in our business writing career ‘to avoid the passive voice’. The reason given is that it is often wordier and clumsier than the active voice, which is more direct and lively. Also, many people think that the passive voice makes for vague or bureaucratic writing. These are valid reasons, but the passive has its place.
The distinction between the active and passive voice is based on a ‘whodunnit’ of the verb. If the subject performs the action, the voice is active. If we don’t know who (or what) is performing the action – or the doer comes after the verb – the voice is passive.
The auditors made a mistake. (active)
A mistake was made. (passive)
A mistake was made by the auditors. (passive)
There are times when the active voice definitely sounds better than the passive. Compare:
The transaction costs will be minimised through agreements with fund managers.
Agreements with fund managers will minimise the transaction costs.
When should we use the passive voice in writing?
Use the passive voice if the ‘doer’ is irrelevant or unknown
Sometimes it just doesn’t matter whodunnit or we don’t know who did it. In such cases, passive sentences work better than active sentences.
The search was called off. (The police called off the search.)
She was diagnosed with cancer. (The oncologist diagnosed her cancer.)
Use the passive voice if you don’t want to blame anyone
The passive is appropriate if you don’t want to blame or acknowledge the doer. As Geoffrey Nunberg says, the passive voice is useful when people are ‘being laid off, tossed out of their homes, dropped from their medical plans, and generally worked over’.
Her contract was terminated.
Use the passive voice for emphasis
With the passive voice we put the emphasis on the receiver of the action rather than the doer. Compare:
The blue car was hit by the bus.
The bus hit the blue car.
Use the passive voice in third-person writing
Writers are often required to use the third person in formal business writing, and sometimes the passive is easier than constantly using ‘Management’ or the company name.
It was anticipated…
It was decided…
Use the passive voice when it’s more concise than the active voice
The passive voice is often clumsy and wordy because it always has extra working words as part of its construction (has been decided). But occasionally, it is more concise.
Made in Australia
My invoice is attached
Have a look at your own writing
You may think you’re an active writer, but analyse a piece of your writing and see how often you use the passive voice. In Introducing English Grammar, Kersti Börjars and Kate Burridge ask readers to identify passive verbs in an extract adapted from Tolkien’s The Hobbit. The extract starts:
Long ago in my grandfather Thror’s time our family was driven out of the far North, and came back with all their wealth and their tools to this Mountain on the map. It had been discovered by my far ancestor.
In most writing, you will use the active voice more than the passive, but the passive voice should be part of your toolkit.
Articles in defence of the passive
- Mistakes Are Made (but Using the Passive Isn’t One of Them)
- To Be or Not To Be: In Defense of the Passive Voice
- The Pleasures and Perils of the Passive
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