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Finding Your Passive Voice
By Mamie Webb Hixon
Writing Lab Director

Today I found my voice—my passive voice, and now I'm going to use it. NOT A GOOD IDEA! When you find your voice—your passive voice, learn how to use it moderately and in specific situations only.

For instance, A good time was had by all of us! is a passive voice sentence that would be better expressed as All of us had a good time! The sentence, as well as the verb, sounds very stiff, stilted, and unnatural: was had! On the other hand, Rome wasn't built in a day is a passive voice sentence that works: since the performer of the action is unknown anyway, using passive voice places the emphasis on the object—Rome, making the sentence forceful and direct. More importantly, writing the sentence in passive voice avoids the use of the vague pronoun "they" in the active voice construction They did not build Rome in a day.

Voice
, in grammatical terms, refers to the relationship of the subject to the verb--whether the relationship is active (with the subject performing the action) or passive (with the subject receiving the action).
     ACTIVE: The committee reached a decision.
     PASSIVE: A decision was reached by the committee.

In a passive voice construction, the "real" subject of a sentence (committee in the example above) is shifted to a secondary, passive slot in the sentence (the object of the preposition by), or it is omitted; a be verb form is added to the active verb (was reached); and the object of the sentence (decision) becomes the subject.

As a professional/business writer, you are expected to be direct, so using active voice allows you to show that your subject acts (The committee reached a decision). Using active voice also allows you to state your subject rather than omit it or make it secondary in a passive voice construction:
     PASSIVE: A decision was reached.
     PASSIVE: A decision was reached by the committee.

Despite these facts, there are instances in which passive voice is universally used and accepted. The unwanted telephone solicitor usually opens with this message: You have been selected to receive. . . . If you send email, you've seen Your mail has been sent. If you're a wedding planner, or if you have received a wedding invitation lately, you probably recognize this formal expression: The favor of a reply is requested. If you're a moviegoer, you should recognize these passive voice sentences: The following previews have been approved by the Motion Picture Association of America. Silence is appreciated. Switching audiences is not permitted. And, if you're a video/movie watcher, you should recognize these passive voice sentences: Viewer discretion is advised. The following film has been modified from its original version. It has been formatted to fit this screen and edited to run in the time allotted and for content.

Other than the formal style used in wedding invitations, the examples above fall under one of these categories in which "your passive voice" can be very effective:
When the action itself is more important than the performer of the action.
     Pre-registration is required.
     On its second vote, the referendum was passed 
     by the City Council.
     The novel was written by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
     A signature is required.
     This program was well publicized.
When it isn't necessary to name a specific person.
     The patient was treated and released.
     Next year's conference will be held in Orlando.
     All three violations were reported.

Dr. Judith Steele in Chapter 4 of her book Write on Target cites several other instances in which the business writer should consider using passive voice (I have added examples):

When the performer of the action is unknown, nonexistent, or unimportant.
     The package has already been mailed.
     Officers were elected at the last meeting.
     The copier will be repaired.
     Income tax refund checks will be mailed in 
     September.
     This person was abducted from the convenience 
     store.
When it is more tactful to avoid blaming a specific person for an error.
     The White House videotapes show that a 
     mistake was made.
When the writer wants to reject something or someone diplomatically.
     Your insurance coverage has been dropped.
     Your credit card privileges have been suspended.
     The students were expelled from school.
When objectivity is being stressed.
     Your application has been approved.
     I am being promoted.
When the writer is making a general statement.
     The meeting has been cancelled.
     The library was closed.
     The company was destroyed by fire.

As a professional/business writer, remember to be forceful, be active; and when you find your appropriate passive voice, use it!

 

 

Passive Voice Resistance

Passive voice should be avoided! All this professional hype about passive voice! Is the hype necessary? The objection to passive voice is that professional writing should be written in active voice. Is the objection reasonable? You decide. Each of the sentences below is written in passive voice. Which ones would be better left in the passive voice? That is, in which ones should the attention be drawn away from the subject?

  • Uniforms must be worn by all students.

  • An attempt to collect the money will be made.

  • We were told to sit in the back of the room.

  • Your call will be answered in the order in which it was received.

  • Funding is provided by the university.

  • His daily column is read by millions of subscribers.

  • The computers will be upgraded.

  • Administrators will be evaluated this year.

  • A check or money order must be enclosed with your application.

  • A proposal has been submitted to the County Commissioners for consideration.

  • This e-mail system has been used by other companies.

  • A pilot program was conducted by UWF.

  • Participants will be asked to go through training.

  • The format was praised.

 


 

PVA - Passive Voice Addiction

Now, here's a one-paragraph letter written in passive voice. Revise it. Call the Writing Lab/Grammar Hotline at (850) 474-2129 for assistance.

Your letter requesting information about our vanpooling program has been received in the director's office. Please be advised, however, that in order for this office to respond to your inquiry, appropriate forms must be completed. Accordingly, your letter is being returned to you, and if you want the information being sought, another letter with the enclosed forms must be sent to us.

 


 

 

THE WHO, WHICH, OR THAT QUESTION

Use who (or whom) to refer to people or animals with given names:
     The request was sent to the company president, 
     who immediately approved it.

Use which to refer to places, things, or events:
     The annual statistical report, which was 
     distributed yesterday, shows an increase in 
     enrollment.

Use whose to refer to both animate and inanimate objects:
     The supervisor whose promotion was denied filed 
     a grievance.
     The book whose ISBN number is 141 2006 is out 
     of print.

Use that to introduce restrictive information and to refer to groups of people, places, things, and events:
     The two companies that adopted the plan showed 
     profit increases.

 


You can e-mail questions about grammar and usage to the Grammar Hotline at writelab@uwf.edu.

 

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