Business Writing Tip #108—A Bit More … about Active or Passive

Use the active voice rather than the passive whenever you can. The sentence structure—subject, verb, object—is more familiar to people and they can read it quickly.

In the active voice the subject performs the action.

Compare, I wrote the report, and, The report was written by me. Both sentences mean the same thing but the second one is clumsy.

So When Can You Use the Passive?

Both the active and passive voices have their place in good, clear business writing.Thinking Girl on phone

The passive voice is often used when the writer doesn’t want to say who was responsible. Think of politicians saying, Mistakes were made. The passive version saying who was responsible sounds clumsy. Mistakes were made by this government. We made mistakes is much cleaner, easier to understand (but politicians may not want to take responsibility for the mistakes).

So write, Barbara chaired the meeting rather than, The meeting was chaired by Barbara.

There are times when we don’t care who did the action. The bridge was finished in 2012.

In this case it is not important who built the bridge. The information we want to convey is when the bridge was finished. So the passive is useful here.

Remember, if you use the passive voice, make sure you know why you are using it. Use it carefully and deliberately.

The economy was a mess. We’re going to fix it. The implication here is someone else messed up the economy. The speaker is distancing themselves from the mess and identifying themselves with fixing it.

This is different from, We messed up the economy. We’re going to fix it.

There are two other times you might use the passive.

  • To make something less hostile: This bill has not been paid is softer than You have not paid this bill.
  • When you don’t know who or what the doer is: The Winter Olympics team has been selected.

In summary, there are two main things to consider when deciding which voice to use.

  1. Most readers find the active voice easier to read and understand, so aim to use it at least 80 percent of the time
  2. Think about what you want to emphasise and whether you want to identify who or what is responsible

(The image in the photo is ‘Sad Girl’ by Noukka Signe via Flickr under Creative Commons licence)


7 thoughts on “Business Writing Tip #108—A Bit More … about Active or Passive

  1. Dalice, I found you via the IYOTSA group on LinkedIn. This is a great topic to think about and to discuss.

    My college writing classes and formal business writing classes trained me to use the active voice, but only experience has helped me to figure out when it is appropriate. I love your summary because it is definitely right on point and is good solid advice.

    Thanks for sharing!
    ~Donna Marie Johnson, The Love Infused Marketing and Graphics Strategist

    • Thanks Donna, I was stunned that it received so much attention … If there are any other topics you would like me to cover, please let me know 🙂

      • Dalice, I am always looking to hear what are the best practices other Admin Pro’s are using to craft their marketing messages about how they serve and solve problems. This is because of the fact that we do so much more than what we can ever describe in those brief compelling messages.

        Thank you for asking for my input. I look forward to hearing more from you soon.


  2. Thank you so much for the helpful hints. I tend to go back and forth with active and passive. Once I read over my workI have to go back and make the changes. Looking forward to more articles from you.

    • Thanks Kim. If there’s anything specific you would like me to cover, please let me know and I’ll do my best!

  3. Hi,
    Thank you very much for sharing this information .
    Does the same applys for presentations as well? Can you tell us about the use of language in office and business presentations that we should take care of.

    • Thanks for the comment Sarita. My principal focus is on written English, but I’ll look into putting together something for presentations … One site you might want to look at is – Simon Bucknall is a champion public speaker and he has some video tips on presenting that you might find useful.

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