Whats the matter with passive voice

Passive voice isn't wrong, but it often causes problems. That's because it often leaves out information that the reader needs. Let me explain how that happens—usually unconsciously by the writer. Remember I said that passive sentences always have a slot for a prepositional phrase beginning with by ?

The policy has been approved by the CEO.

The policy has been approved.

In the first sentence, the words in the by phrase (showing the actor) are actually there; in the second, they aren't there, but there's a place—a slot—for them. Both sentences, of course, are passive.

Too often, passive sentences in business writing are like the second sentence: they leave out the by phrase (and, consequently, the actor). Sometimes you, the reader, can guess who the actor is; sometimes you can't. For example, look at this sentence:

When a computer file has been created, it must be moved to the remote node.

Sounds simple, even though it's passive, doesn't it? But what does it mean? Notice that it has left out both by phases (and both actors):

When a computer file has been created [by ???], it must be moved [by ???] to the remote node.

So we have to guess who—or what—the actors are: Is the user creating the computer file? Probably—but we're guessing. And who is moving the computer file? The user? The system administrator? The system itself? Unless we already know what this writer is talking about, we must guess.

Well, this sentence came from a writer I was working with. Here's what he wrote when I asked him to put the sentence into active voice:

When a user creates a computer file, the system must move it to the remote node.

Just check your in-box. Find a piece of writing that's hard to read. And then notice how many passives leave out the by phrase—and leave you guessing who is doing the action.

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  • mattalic
    Does passive voice matter business writing?
    8 years ago

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