JS Tip 272: The Rare Appropriate Passive Voice

Tips from Jefferson Smith Training and Consulting

** From the Writing Workshops: Using Passive Voice Appropriately

Passive voice is appropriate in only three ways:

One: Use passive voice when whoever received the action is more important than whoever did the action: “The President was driven to Parkland Memorial Hospital.”

Two: Use passive voice when you don’t know who’s done the action: “The package was lost in the mail.”

Three: Use passive voice when you don’t want to mention who’s done the action: “The copier’s been broken. Who did it is unimportant.” (You’re protecting the new intern.) Be careful; this may be ethical quicksand.

We found a quotation in appropriate passive voice. President Franklin Roosevelt follows the first principle of appropriate passive voice (“when whoever received the action is more important than whoever did the action”):

Yesterday, December 7th, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan. To Roosevelt and his audience, “the United States of America” was their first concern.

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