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Writing Well


  Passive Voice Active Voice
1. Why was the road crossed by the chicken? 
[Sentence subject: road]
Why did the chicken cross the road? 
 [Sentence subject: chicken]
2. The ball was hit by the boy.
[Sentence subject: ball]
The boy hit the ball.
[Sentence subject: boy]
3. The paperwork for this request was not turned in on time.
[Sentence subject: paperwork. Note that we do not know who did not turn it in.]
John did not turn in the paperwork for this request on time.
[Sentence subject: John—or anyone else you can blame it on.]
4. This job was done well.
[Sentence subject: job]
You did this job well.
[Sentence subject: You]
In the active voice, the one who did the sentence’s action is the subject, or core noun, of the sentence. In the passive voice, the object of the action becomes the subject of the sentence.

In Worktalk business writing trainings, we extol the virtues of the active voice. It is more direct, more understandable, more authentic. Basically, it's better! Except in specific cases when the passive voice is appropriate, the active voice will get your point across more clearly every time.

People in large organizations gravitate toward the passive voice, with its penchant for blurred accountability, formality, and arms-length relationship. They may feel the passive sounds more “professional”. They may have been told not to personalize their writing with pronouns like and you.  They may just be so in the habit of using the passive voice that using the active voice feels like diving off a cliff. Our training programs coax them to use the active voice more often.

But is the active voice always the best option? Looking at the examples above, you can see that the answer is not always simple.

1. Why was the road crossed by the chicken?  Why did the chicken cross the road? 

Here, the active voice is the clear winner. Who cares about the road? We want to know that the chicken crossed it.  

2. The ball was hit by the boy. The boy hit the ball.

In this case, the active voice the puts the agent at the head of the sentence and answers the crucial question: Who did the action? It also satisfies a deep need of the human mind: the need to put cause before effect. When we hear the effect before the cause, our brains struggle to flip the message around to cause/effect order, so that we can understand what happened.

3. The paperwork for this request was not turned in on time. John did not turn in the paperwork for this request on time.

Now the choice is less obvious. The passive voice lets John off the hook for not turning in the paperwork; it lets the reader figure out the culprit. The active voice screams, “J’accuse!”  And that is why using the active voice might not be the best option. For the very reasons that make it so valuable in making clear, direct statements, the active voice is not suited to delivering criticism or blame.  No one likes finger-pointing, and that is what the active voice does. It emphasizes the one who made the mistake.

4. This job was done well. You did this job well.

How about this one? The passive voice compliments the job, but leaves out the all-important question: Who did the job? When delivering praise or good news, the active voice is your best vehicle for acknowledgment.  You did a great job is a more powerful motivator than This job was done well.

In short, follow the advice we give in Worktalk trainings:

  • Create connection with the active voice. Make the one who did the action the subject of your sentence.  This satisfies the reader’s deep need to put cause before effect and follows the natural pattern of actor-action-object.
  • Criticize in the passive voice.  The passive voice creates an arms-length relationship, which is where you want to be when you are blaming or criticizing another person. Blunt the impact of your words by using the passive voice.
  • Praise in the active voice.  When you praise, do so abundantly. Tell people exactly what they did right, and put the people who worked well at the top of your praiseful sentences.
The active voice packs power. Like any power, it should be used judiciously. It will always help you get your point across more directly. Just be sure that directness is what you want.
©2016 Elizabeth Danziger All rights reserved

Read Writamins on these topics:

Emailing Effectively

Writing Well

Choosing the Right Word

Thoughts on Writing

Writing Within Organizations

Bad writing is costly. Good writing builds relationships and productivity. Improve the business writing and email in your organization by offering business writing and email training programs from Worktalk. Contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. for information.

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Why choose WorkTalk trainings?

  • Taught by a professional writer. +

    These courses are not taught by a general skills trainer who happens to teach writing. Elizabeth Danziger has been published by major publishing houses such as Random House and Harcourt Brace. Her work has appeared in many national magazines. She is an expert writer and editor who brings her knowledge as a resource to participants.
  • Customized. +

    Every Worktalk training is customized to the client's needs. We meet with you, analyze writing samples from your organization, and customize our training to target the specific challenges that employees in your organization face.
  • Energetic and entertaining. +

    With plenty of exercises and opportunities for interaction, the Worktalk trainings move quickly. Subjects that were terrifying in grammar school become fun and interesting in these outstanding programs.
  • Proven results. +

    In trainings all over the country, Ms. Danziger has enabled participants to streamline their organizing process, eliminate persistent errors, and drastically cut their revision time. Clients spend less time on key communications while producing better relationships and results. Sales people get more positive responses from prospects.
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