Section 2.5

Passive Voice

Perhaps you have been told before not to use passive voice, examples of which abound in business writing. The idea, though, is not to eliminate passive voice entirely; rather, you should avoid excessive or unjustified use of passive voice.

Defining Passive Voice

To reduce passive voice, one must first be able to identify it. The sentence below offers a classic example:

The results were analyzed by the executive committee.

What makes this sentence passive? Look for the following characteristics:

1. The grammatical subject — results, in this example — receives the action of the verb. In other words, the results don’t do anything; rather, something is done to them.

2. The verbs include the following:

a. a form of the verb to be (were, in this case). Besides were, other forms of to be are as follows: am, is, are, was, be, been, and being.

b. a past participle (here, the word analyzed)

In case the past participle is a hazy memory (or no memory at all!), just keep in mind that it is the form of a verb that would fit in the following blank: I have _____. For regular verbs, the past participle is identical to the past tense (I have moved vs. I moved, I have finished vs. I finished, etc.). For irregular verbs, the past participle and past tense differ. For instance, the past participle of to drive is driven, while the past tense is drove. The past participle of to eat is eaten, while the past tense is ate.

3. If the entity performing the action is included in the sentence, it typically follows the verbs and appears as part of a prepositional phrase — in the example above, by the executive committee. (For more on prepositional phrases, see Section 2.4.) A sentence can contain passive voice without including this information, though. Deleting by the executive committee from the sample sentence does not eliminate the passive voice. The following is still a passive construction:

The results were analyzed.

As you look for passive voice, keep in mind that a form of the verb to be does not automatically signal a passive construction. For example, how many of the following three sentences contain passive voice?

1. The meeting was not productive for me.

2.  The meeting was led by Edna.

3.  The meeting was boring the attendees.

In fact, only the second sentence illustrates passive voice. In Sentence 1, productive is an adjective, not a past participle. In the third sentence, boring is not a past participle either. (Remember, it can’t fit in the following blank: I have _____.) In addition, the subject of the sentence — meeting — is performing the action, namely, boring the attendees. Sentence 3 is actually a perfect example of active voice.

Reducing Passive Voice

In many passive-voice constructions, the writer would be better off rewriting the sentence using active voice. Compare these two versions:

Passive Voice
The results were analyzed by the executive committee.

Active Voice
The executive committee analyzed the results.

Active voice is generally superior to passive voice. For one thing, it is more direct. The reader learns first who or what performed the action, then what the action was, and finally who or what was acted upon. It is usually easier to process information that way than it is to begin with the recipient of the action, then learn what the action was, then find out who did it.

Also, by replacing passive with active voice in the example above, we reduced the number of words by two. Active voice is in most cases the more economical structure.

Watch out for passive-voice constructions such as the following, which recur frequently in business documents:

  • it is recommended that
  • it was decided that
  • it has been noted that

In many cases, these phrases are fillers and can simply be eliminated, often with little or no rewriting of the remainder of the sentences that contain them. Compare the original and revised versions of the following sentences (passive voice is italicized):

It was decided that we need to shut down our Oregon plant.

Unfortunately, we need to shut down our Oregon plant.

It has been noted that employees have been using their corporate e-mail accounts to send personal messages.

Employees have been using their corporate e-mail accounts to send personal messages.

Acceptable Passive Voice

Nonetheless, passive voice is sometimes acceptable, even preferable. For example, it is appropriate in the following cases:

1. when the entity performing the action is unknown

Suppose your cat comes home one night with a cut on her leg, and you don’t know the cause of the injury. When you go into work the next day, you might tell your assistant, “My cat was injured last night.” If you don’t know how your cat was injured, it is hard to construct a reasonable active-voice version of this sentence. You might have to say something silly like, “A dog, another cat, or maybe something else altogether injured my cat last night.”

2. when the emphasis is properly on the entity receiving the action

For example, you might complain to the head of the marketing department, “Our website hasn’t been updated in nearly six months.” Here, passive voice emphasizes the fact that your website isn’t current. Now, if you wanted to assign blame for this problem, you would probably gravitate towards active voice instead: “You haven’t updated our website in nearly six months.”