Active Voice for Business Writing
Politicians and civil servants love writing with passive voice. Because passive voice is less direct, it’s easier for the author to be non-committal and to avoid taking responsibility. Passive voice involves using some form of the verb to be followed by a past participle: will be taken, is to be regretted.
“Be assured that action on tax havens will be taken.” What action? When will it be taken? The doer of the action isn’t specified, allowing those politicians to hide from accountability.
Let’s correct the sentence using active voice: “In January, our government will act on tax havens.” Take that to the election!
To appear more credible, use active voice.
“It is to be regretted that the lamp you purchased does not work. The matter will be promptly investigated.” Who regrets? Who will investigate? What’s your idea of “promptly”? Would this claim make you a happy customer?
Active voice is direct: “I regret that the lamp you purchased does not work. I will look into the matter and arrange for a full return or refund.” Your customer now knows exactly what to expect.
When to Use Passive Voice
Sometimes you need to use passive voice, especially if information is missing:
“It was reported that the store burned down.” You don’t know who reported the fire.
To emphasize the receiver of the action, you may want to use passive voice so you can put the receiver at the end of the sentence:
Active voice: “Our company was the first to use this innovative technology to Ottawa. “ Here you want to stress the role of your company.
Now here’s the passive voice version: “This innovative technology has been brought to Ottawa by our company.” Here you want to stress the arrival of the technology.
Plain English Is In
Clear, concise, direct—those are some of the basics of writing according to the principles of plain English. Active voice is for clarity; passive voice is for obfuscation: Write like a business person, not like a civil servant.