My grandma helps avoid the passive

Maybe it’s the influence of Legal departments, who prefer the blameless “mistakes were made” or “it was decided” to naming names. But corporate writers often have to fight for the active voice — you know, where the subject performs an action, like “The Legal department slashed my article to ribbons.” Instead, the passive voice creeps in, where the action “gets done” by someone or something, as in “My article was slashed to ribbons by the Legal department.” This turns your brisk action into something wordy, impersonal and typically vague too.

It’s true there are occasions where the passive voice is appropriate. Use it when you don’t know who did the action or when you want to put the emphasis on the receiver rather than the performer of an action. But what often happens in the corporate world is promising action without committing a specific person to performing it, or admitting something without accepting responsibility. Thus when a company fires an executive, it may announce “Changes are being made to the executive team” (by whom?) and “[NAME] has been appointed” (by whom?).

Ann Wylie shared a great trick for finding the passive voice in her December 6 Wylie’s Writing Tips newsletter (which she attributes to Tim Burnett at FedEx): If you can add “by my grandma” to the end of the sentence and it makes sense, it’s passive. For instance, “Changes are being made to the executive team by my grandma” and “[NAME] has been appointed by my grandma” both make sense; both are passive.

To fix the passive, make sure the subject (my grandma) is doing the action: “My grandma has made changes to the executive team” and “My grandma has appointed [NAME].” If my grandma didn’t do it, well, maybe it was “the board” or “the company.”

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  1. Sue Ridewood
    Posted December 11, 2010 at 10:13 pm | Permalink

    Great trick, Sue; I’m going to use it. ha ha my trainer at the gym always tries to motivate us by saying, “My Grandma could do that!”

  2. Posted December 11, 2010 at 11:15 pm | Permalink

    Now that’s cruel!!

  3. Sue Ridewood
    Posted December 13, 2010 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

    …especially since his grandma departed this mortal coil about 10 years ago. Now THAT stings!

  4. Posted December 13, 2010 at 10:18 pm | Permalink

    Whatever happened to positive reinforcement??

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