JS Tip 21: From the Business Writing Workshop: Active and Passive Voice

Sometimes, as you run your spelling and grammar checks, a warning screen will say, “This sentence may be in passive voice.” And you’ll say, “What the heck is passive voice?” 

“Voice” relates to who or what is doing the action of a sentence. (Not all sentences involve action: “The outbuilding was red,” for example, is pure description.)

If the subject does the action, the sentence is in “active voice”: “The maintenance department will repair the pump.” Notice how the subject, the maintenance department, is doing the action, the repairing.

If the subject receives the action, the sentence is in “passive voice”: “The pump will be repaired by the maintenance department.” Notice how the subject, the pump, is receiving the action; it’s being repaired.

Use active voice as your standard. It’s concise, conversational, and direct. Try “The bank reduced the fees,” instead of “The fees have been reduced by the bank.”

A Challenge: Identify a well-known quotation or passage in passive voice. Bet you can’t find one. Glory, laud, and honor to whoever can.

In next week’s Tip, we’ll explore three warning flags to identify passive voice.