The passive voice might be why your writing is flat and unconvincing

by | Nov 1, 2016 | Business writing, Language & grammar | 0 comments

Does your writing lack a certain spark? Are your emails, reports or research papers dull and difficult to understand? If so, you might be relying too much on the passive voice.

There’s nothing wrong with the passive voice as such. Sometimes it can be very useful. But an overuse of the passive voice in business and academic writing is a big reason why a lot of this text is as dry and inaccessible as a hedge maze in the Sahara.

What is the passive voice?

A basic English sentence consists of two nouns and a verb. For example:

The dog chased the ball.

Here the nouns are ‘the dog’ and ‘the ball’, and the verb is ‘chased.’

Drilling down, we can see that these two nouns perform different roles:

  • One of them (‘The dog’) is the thing that is performing the action described by the verb. This noun is often referred to as the ‘subject’ of the sentence or the ‘agent’ of the action. But to keep things simple I’m going to call it the performer.
  • The other one (‘the ball’) is the thing that has the action performed on it. This is the ‘object’, the ‘patient’, or in our case, the recipient.

So, in the sentence:

The dog chased the ball.

The verb is ‘chased’.

The performer of the action – the thing doing the chasing–  is ‘the dog’.

The recipient of the action – the thing that is being chased – is ‘the ball’.

This sentence is written in what we call the active voice. When you use the active voice, the performer comes before the verb, and the recipient comes after it. In this case, ‘the dog’ occurs before ‘chased’, and ‘the ball’ comes after.

But we can also flip the sentence around and put the recipient of the action before the action, and the thing that actually performs the action afterwards. This is what we call the passive voice:

The ball was chased by the dog.

To summarise: a sentence written in active voice goes performer–action–recipient, while a sentence written in passive voice goes recipient–action–performer.

Some more passive voice examples

Active voice: Alan loves Steve.

Passive voice: Steve is loved by Alan.

Active voice: The initiative increased sales by 60%.

Passive voice: Sales increased 60% due to the initiative.

Active voice: We collated the results.

Passive voice The results were collated.

Notice that the passive sentence in the last example doesn’t include a performer at all – we are not told who collated the results.

You can only leave the person or thing that performs an action out of a sentence when you write in the passive voice.

What’s wrong with the passive voice?

The passive voice is a perfectly legitimate way to write a sentence. Sometimes it is even the best way (more on that below).

But when you’re writing something for your job, chances are you’re trying to do at least one of these things:

  1. Convince the reader of something. You might want funders to invest in your idea, peers to accept the results of your research, or the promotions committee to give you an interview.
  2. Highlight something that you or your organisation has done. That could be winning an award, making a groundbreaking discovery or improving efficiency at your last job.
  3. Communicate something as clearly as possible. Hopefully this one is a no-brainer!

If you want to do any of those things, you don’t want to use the passive voice, because:

The passive voice makes you sound distant and non-committal

Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle does not use the passive voice

It’s right there in the names: while the active voice takes charge and asserts its authority, the passive voice just sits there meekly without really committing to anything.

That’s because passive sentences tend to have an element of indirectness or distance that their active cousins don’t. (Try telling your significant other ‘you are loved by me’ instead of ‘I love you’ and see if you get the same response.)

The Columbia Guide to Standard American English sums it up well:

Active voice makes subjects do something (to something); passive voice permits subjects to have something done to them (by someone or something). Some argue that active voice is more muscular, direct, and succinct, passive voice flabbier, more indirect, and wordier. If you want your words to seem impersonal, indirect, and noncommittal, passive is the choice, but otherwise, active voice is almost invariably likely to prove more effective.

And this is why the passive voice is the enemy of good writing – it’s indirectness and non-committal air makes your writing seem weaker and less convincing.

Would Martin Luther King Jr’s 1963 speech be quite so iconic if its refrain was ‘A dream is had by me’?

Do you think Taxi Driver would be one of the most quoted movies in history if De Niro had stared into that mirror and asked ‘am I being talked to by you?’

Doubtful. And while your job mightn’t involve being a civil rights leader or an angry, unstable vigilante, you still want your message to come through as strongly as possible.

So when you’re trying to win over your reader or highlight something amazing you’ve done, the weak, passive voice is rarely the right choice.

The passive voice is harder to understand

Passive sentences are generally wordier and more complicated than their active cousins.

Here is a snippet of typical business-speak, written entirely in the passive voice:

An audit of the company website content was performed. It was shown by the audit that many of the pages on our site are outdated or incorrect. As a result, a decision was made that the copywriting for these pages be outsourced. Multiple proposals were analysed and it was determined that Copy Octopus Writing Services was the best provider for the job.

Snore. Now, let’s see the same thing rewritten in the active voice:

We performed an audit of the company website. The audit showed that many of the pages on our site are outdated or incorrect. As a result, we decided to outsource the copywriting for these pages. We analysed multiple proposals and determined that Copy Octopus Writing Services was the best provider for the job.

While neither of these paragraphs is likely to win the Nobel Prize for literature, I think you’ll agree that the active version is more direct and easier to understand. It also contains about 15% less words.

Here’s an example for you academics out there:

Passive voice: Healthy eating initiatives have been instigated by governments around the world in response to growing rates of obesity. A review of these types of initiatives was conducted by the Centre for Global Health in 2015. A conclusion was drawn that there is a large gap between theory and practice when healthy eating policies are implemented by governments without consultation.

Active voice: Governments around the world have instigated healthy eating initiatives in response to growing rates of obesity. The Centre for Global Health conducted a review of these types of initiatives in 2015. We concluded that there is a large gap between theory and practice when governments implement healthy eating policies without consultation.

Again, neither paragraph is brilliant prose, but the active version is shorter, punchier and requires less mental gymnastics to comprehend.

Why do so many people use the passive voice in business and academia?

I honestly have no idea how the passive voice became so popular in business circles. If anyone can explain it, please let me know.

Academics, however, are often taught to write in the passive voice because it supposedly gives their writing a sense of objectivity and independence.

Because you can leave the performer of an action out of passive sentences, you can write an entire research paper without once mentioning who is actually doing the experiment or study.

But that’s ridiculous. I’m pretty sure the people reading your research paper are smart enough to know that they can repeat your experiment or study themselves, even though the original one was done by someone else (most of them have PhDs, after all!)

Any sane academic wants to have their important research read and understood by as many people as possible. That means writing as clearly as possible by sticking to the active voice unless there’s an extremely compelling reason not to.

So is it ever a good idea to use the passive voice?

Yes. There are a few situations when the passive voice is not only acceptable, it’s advantageous:

You’ve stuffed up and want to avoid admitting too much responsibility

When you’ve done something wrong and need to own up, you can use the passive voice to slightly soften the blow.

Remember, you don’t have to include the performer of the action in a passive sentence. Which makes the passive voice perfect when the action is a bad one and the performer just happens to be you:

Mistakes were made.

An error occurred.

A bystander was hurt.

That money has been spent.

(Not that I would every recommend such a thing, of course. If you decide to use grammar for evil, that’s on you.)

When you don’t know who the performer of an action is

There are some occasions when you might not know who or what is performing an action. In this case, the passive voice is often the best choice:

My car was broken into.

Our website is being hacked.

The toilet is going to be fixed next week.

When the performer is unimportant or can be assumed

Sometimes the reader doesn’t need to know who is responsible for an action. For example:

All the widgets have been sold.

A business probably doesn’t care who has bought all their widgets, they just want to know if they have any left to sell. In that case, the passive voice is a good idea.

And sometimes you don’t need to mention the performer because your reader will automatically know who or what it is:

In 2016, Malcolm Turnbull was elected Prime Minister.

We could add ‘by the Australian voters’ to the end of this sentence, but it’s safe to assume most people know who is responsible for electing a Prime Minister.

When identifying the recipient is more important than the performer

Being passive is great for tropical holidays, but not for strong writing.

Because the passive voice puts the recipient of the action at the start of the sentence, it can be used when you want to put more emphasis on the recipient at the expense of the performer. For example:

  1. Active voice: Nicole Kidman, Angelina Jolie and Justin Bieber have all visited Bora Bora.
  2. Passive voice: Bora Bora has been visited by Nicole Kidman, Angelina Jolie and Justin Bieber.

The difference here is quite subtle, but in sentence #2, the emphasis is on the recipient of the ‘visit’ action – the island of Bora Bora. Sentence #1 (the active version) seems to place more importance on the celebrities themselves.

So while sentence #1 might be the right choice for an article about the travel habits of the Hollywood A-List, #2 would be better for a brochure promoting Bora Bora accomodation packages.

When you want to include a lot of extra information about the performer

Sometimes you want to include some extra information about your subject in a sentence. This usually reads better when it’s placed at the end of a sentence.

Compare:

Passive voice: The project will be overseen by Professor Snape, the recipient of the 2015 Wighton Medal and one of Australia’s leading medical researchers.

with:

Active voice: Professor Snape, the recipient of the 2015 Wighton Medal and one of Australia’s leading medical researchers, will oversee the project.

Although conventional wisdom tells us that active sentences are easier to understand, shoving all that extra info into the middle of the sentence has a negative impact on readability, so in this case I would go for the passive version.

So, what have we learned?

If you’ve made it this far, congratulations! If you’ve skipped to the end of the post for the tl;dr version, here’s what you’ve missed:

  1. The passive voice makes your writing seem weak and noncommittal. It also makes it harder to read.
  2. Academic and business writing tends to overuse the passive voice for no good reason.
  3. There are some situations where the passive voice is useful, like when you don’t want to mention the person or thing responsible for an action, or when the recipient of the action is more important than the performer.
  4. If you want your writing to be clear and convincing, use the active voice unless you have a very good reason not to.

Need help switching from passive to active?

Overusing the passive voice is just one of the things that might be making your writing less effective. If you need someone to edit your text for clarity and persuasiveness, please get in touch for a free quote.

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