Your high school English teacher knows. Your boss knows too – even if she can’t explain why. Passive verbs kill your business writing. They weaken your message and make your ideas more difficult to understand. Despite these obvious drawbacks, use of the passive voice is painfully common in business writing. Learn to recognize and avoid this trap and all of your writing projects – memos, letters, proposals, press releases etc. – will improve overnight!
A passive construction occurs when the person or thing which performs the action in a sentence comes after the action itself. Consider the following passive sentence as an example: “The cup was placed on the table by John. ” In this sentence, it is John that performs the action by placing the cup, yet John appears after the action within the sentence. To make this an active sentence, we might rewrite it as “John placed the cup on the table. ” Even in this very simple example we see that writing in the active voice shortens our sentences and makes them a little punchier.
The passive sentence has an evil little companion called the implied subject, and they often team up to really devastate your writing. Going back to our example above we might read that “The cup was placed on the table. ” John is now missing from our new sentence altogether, the writer has simply implied his existence.
To find passive constructions in your writing, look for a form of to be (is, are, am , was, were, has been, have been, had been, will be, will have been, being) followed by a past participle. The past participle is a form of the verb often, but not always, ending in -ed. Some exceptions to the -ed rule are words like paid and eaten. So in our cup example, the give away clue is the phrase “was placed. ”
The lack of clarity and general softness of the passive voice can make this construction very seductive in certain writing situations. By hiding the performer of the action at the end of the sentence or removing the performer altogether, the passive voice can help the writer avoid taking responsible for actions or assigning them to others. In the sentence “Numerous mathematical errors were included in the final report to the CEO. ” we have a classic situation in which the passive voice and an implied subject have conveniently allowed the writer to avoid mentioning who is responsible for the mathematical errors. Perhaps the writer was a little hesitant to point the finger of blame, but odds are that the boss would prefer to know that “The Accounting Team included numerous mathematical errors in the final report to the CEO. ”
As a final note I should point out that there are times when it is acceptable and even appropriate to use the passive voice. Sometimes it truly is the object of the action that you wish to emphasize, as in “More than a million dollars will be required to complete the project. ” You should not, however, allow yourself to be placated by the fact that passive voice is sometimes acceptable. Anytime you recognize that you have written passively, you should stop and ask yourself if your writing might be strengthened by switching into an active voice. I promise that virtually every time the answer will be yes!
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