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How to Boost Your Writing: Kill the Passive Voice

Passive voice gets a bad rap. And for good reason. In business writing, at least, it usually translates into a deadened tone that keeps the reader at arm’s length. Consider an angry neighbor who says, Your neck will be wrung by me! Or a police officer who shouts, Stop. Or you will be shot by me! Both of these are written in passive voice.

They both lack punch, wouldn’t you say? In addition to its stuffy tone, passive voice also lengthens and clutters sentences. Business writing needs to be clean and crisp, not bogged down with extra words.

All that said, passive voice is useful when:

1. the actor is unknown or irrelevant: The vaccine was developed quickly. It doesn’t matter who developed the vaccines, so the passive voice here is fine. These kinds of statements are common in science writing.

2. there is no agent doing the action (often used in the sciences): The process was terminated. Passive voice is also used in the sciences, especially computer science, since there never was person or agent performing the action.

3. you intend to be vague about who is responsible (common in bureaucratic writing): ​​​​​​​Mistakes were made. No one wants to admit an error.

If Stella and Ivan are unpleasant coworkers, then go with #1. But if she invited some grouchy coworkers along with Stella and Ivan, then #2, with the Oxford comma, is your go-to punctuation. In sum, it can change the meaning of a sentence. Why doesn’t everyone use that serial comma? Newspapers and magazines don’t use it because they need to save space. Others think it slows the paragraph down. If want to avoid the problem, rewrite the sentence: She invited Stella and Ivan, along with her grouch coworkers. Voilà! The ambiguity is solved. Too persnickety for you? Then consider the $10 million court case that hinged on this very topic. Not so funny anymore, is it? If you have questions about passive voice, call us at 425.485.3221 and improve all your business communication.


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