Write Strong, Direct Sentences
Use active voice.

English verbs have two voices: active voice and passive voice. In active voice, the person acting is clear: "The manager wrote the report yesterday." The person acting is the manager.

In passive voice, the person acting isn't specified: "The report was written yesterday." It could have been written by the secretary, George Bush, or the manager--we don't know.

The sentence is still in passive voice if the actor is specified later in the sentence: "The report was written yesterday by the manager."

Why use active voice?

Passive voice makes the writing unclear by keeping the identity of the actor secret. At times the identity is obvious, but often it isn't. Even if the reader has an idea of who the actor is, passive voice creates weak sentences that don't communicate immediately and emphatically.

This report is made up entirely of passive voice sentences:

The pipeline was inspected and was found to have cracks at three joints. The decision was made to replace the three joints and a contractor was engaged. After the work was completed, the leaks stopped.

Change the passive voice sentences to active voice unless you have a good reason to use passive voice:

The foreman inspected the pipeline and discovered cracks at three joints. The plant maintenance manager decided to replace the three joints and had the contracting department engage a contractor. After the contractor completed the work, the leaks stopped.

Now the reader knows who discovered the cracks, who decided to replace them, who engaged the contractor, and who did the work. When issues come up about the pipeline and what happened, the reader won't have to be Sherlock Holmes to discover who was involved.

Use passive voice sparingly

Business writers should use the passive voice very sparingly. Use passive voice if

  1. You don't know who the actor is
  2. The actor isn't important to the message
  3. You want to hide the identity of the actor

In the introduction to this section, I used passive voice because I was focusing on the sentences, not the actors. The actors were superfluous. I wrote "In passive voice, the person acting isn't specified." That is in passive voice because I didn't state the actor. It is acceptable because the focus was on a characteristic of the writing, not who did the writing.

Changing passive voice to active voice

To change passive voice to active, identify the performer of the action. If the performer is in a "by the" phrase, simply move the performer to the subject position, just before the verb. If the writer did not name a performer, choose a subject that fits the context. "The test results will be announced next week" easily becomes "We will announce the test results next week" or "The researchers will announce the test results next week."

Avoid mixing active and passive voice in the same sentence. The first half of this sentence is active, but the second half is passive: "We found the lost contract, and the client was notified immediately." Instead, use active voice throughout: "We found the lost contract and notified the client immediately."

Business writers should prefer active voice for most documents. Active voice is more direct and concise than passive voice. Passive voice is often awkward and evasive. Readers may interpret passive voice as an attempt to avoid admitting responsibility, as in the following example:

"A mistake was made that resulted in an overcharge to your account that has now been corrected and will be shown on your next statement."

Active voice sounds more responsible: "Our data entry clerk made a mistake and overcharged your account, but she corrected the entry. Your next statement will show the correction."

Use active voice at all times unless you have a good reason to use passive.

Practice changing passive voice to active voice

Find the passive verbs in the following sentences. Change them to active voice.

Write your answer before comparing your sentences with the samples. When you are finished, close this window to return to your assignments page.

1. The report will be reviewed by the supervisor before it is sent to the manager.

2. Errors were found in the self-audit, but steps have been taken to correct them.

3. If you have questions, I can be reached at 712 288-1144.

4. The current status report has been attached, and I have highlighted the important figures.

5. Not before the survey responses have been collected and tabulated will it be possible to know the opinions of our employees.

6. If most of the opinions expressed by the survey respondents are negative, then more research may be needed before we can proceed with the project.

7. The recommended guidelines for replacing equipment should be followed.

8. According to the customer service representative, reshipment of these items will be considered when the customer's need is determined by the company.

9. The participants were welcomed by Joyce Carmen, and the keynote speaker was introduced by her.

10. Two serious omissions of income were discovered and corrected before the accounting records were reviewed by the auditor.

Continue to the post-test.