I would have thought there was only one thing to say about passive voice — avoid it — but on the writers’ forum I belong to one thread on the passive has grown to 134 comments. The commenters were divided over whether there was a place for the passive or not, and more interestingly, the division quite clearly fell in the Atlantic Ocean. US writers are furiously against the passive, seeing it as an indication of weak writing, while British writers believe the passive has its place. Now writers are passionate and opinionated, but who knew that opinions could be so divided?
The writers I’m talking about here are creative writers who have much more leeway than business writers. Creative writers have the freedom to make language their tool, to forge and form it according to the needs of their narrative. However in business writing, my simple rule applies. Avoid the passive.
In business writing it is essential to know who does what. Business is all about tasks — who decides what the tasks are, who performs the tasks, who reports on the tasks, who collates the results of the tasks and who decides what further tasks should take place on the basis of those results. Business writing should be black and white, not interesting shades of grey. The passive introduces grey. As one commenter on the thread said, ‘Passive lacks clarity and precision.’
I find it odd that German, which is spoken by people who are world-renowned for their precision, is a language that embraces the passive. This is fine for the German language, but horrible for English translations. Two years ago, I edited a technical book written by Germans in English. It was filled with long-winded passive constructions that hurt my English soul. I had to address each sentence, ask myself what or who the agent was and rewrite. When a sentence lasts for a paragraph, this is not necessarily easy or fun.
Let’s not talk about my pain any longer. Let’s talk about the passive. Via the writer’s forum, I found this handy worksheet, which you can peruse at your leisure. It has an excellent section on common myths about the passive.
The standard English language sentence is Subject – Verb – Object. Passive voice is where the subject which begins the sentence is actually the object of the verb, so the sentence is Object – Verb – Subject. Here are some examples:
First, the new software package is installed. This is passive and begging the question ‘who should install the software package?’ In business, and in business writing, we always need to know who must do what. The software package is the object and not the subject of the sentence.
First, install the new software package. This is active voice with an implied ‘you’ who is the object of the sentence and must do the installing.
A report was set up to capture payroll data. This is passive.
The Finance Department set up a report to capture payroll data. This is active, with the FD as the subject of the sentence.
Training is conducted in fifteen locations globally. This is passive.
The company conducts training in fifteen locations globally. This is active.
The sentences using the active voice are clear and precise, while those using the passive are confusing and open to interpretation. So here’s my manifesto: English-language business writers embrace the active voice. You have nothing to lose but your opaqueness.