I was encouraged to write a post about the passive voice.
Okay. Stop right there.
If you’re a corporate communicator, can you spot what’s wrong with the first sentence? I’ve crossed my fingers in the hopes you said, Yuck! That’s the passive voice! Although I fully sympathize if you had a hard time recognizing it because company communications normalizes passive construction. Company announcements and reports are fertile ground where passive-voiced sentences sprout like weeds.
By the way, while a friend of mine suggested I write about the passive voice, I didn’t need a whole lot of encouragement. I hate the passive voice. And what I hate most about it is how it makes people and things sound like victims. That’s because someone or something is being acted on, instead of doing the acting.
Let me walk you through a couple of examples that I’ve seen recently and suggestions for alternatives.
The team leaders were listed in the change charter. Ewww. This is classic. The action (listing) is happening to the team leaders. In my view, it makes the team leaders sound like they’re suffering the listing (poor team leaders!), when the exact opposite is probably true. No doubt they’re all fired up and eager to lead their people on some exciting new project. But you’d never get that from the sentence. Instead, why not say: The change charter lists the team leaders. Isn’t that easier to understand? Plus, I’m no longer worried about those suffering team leaders.
It was determined that the decision would be made on Monday. Sounds downright deceitful, doesn’t it? This is the kind of sentence that draws my attention and I immediately think: What aren’t they telling me? In my head, the vagueness of starting the sentence with “it was determined” sounds like “it” is being bullied and everybody else is hiding something. That’s when all the red flags go up, and my trust goes right out the door. Oh, yes, there’s nothing like a weasel-y sentence to erode trust. Wouldn’t it be better if someone could show some gumption and take ownership? How about: The committee put off the decision until Monday. Reading this, I feel like I know exactly what is happening and who is in charge, even if I don’t like waiting.
If there’s one thing that you can do to improve your writing, look for the passive voice. Sure, there are times when the passive construction makes sense. But for the most part, write without victims and use the active voice.
Heaven knows that corporate announcements are fertile ground for passive voice to bloom and flourish.