Posted by: Jack Henry | February 16, 2023

Editor’s Corner: Passive Voice

Good morning! Mind if I jump right in?

We editors talk a lot about writing clearly by cutting out unnecessary words and phrases. One way to do that is to look for and revise sentences written in passive voice. These sentences usually include the “to be” verb, and they emphasize the action or the object of a sentence instead of the subject (remember, the subject is the person or thing that is doing something in a sentence.)

To revise passive voice, you need to begin the sentence with a subject (in the example below, the subject is “the teller”).

Passive sentence Revised active sentence
The drawer will be balanced by the teller at the end of the day.
(Note the use of “will be.”)
The teller will balance the drawer at the end of the day.

Not only is the latter sentence a little shorter, it’s also clearer and easier to understand—which leads to another problem with passive voice: sometimes these sentences are confusing because it’s impossible to tell who did or should do the action. Here’s an example:

· The job should be run two times: once in the morning and once at the end of the day.

Who should run the job? Maybe it will be clear by the context of other sentences. Often though, it’s not. Along with the wordiness we already discussed, this ambiguity is another problem with passive voice. However, it’s also the reason a lot of people choose to use passive voice. You see, passive voice allows you to avoid attributing blame or responsibility. When 16-year-old me said to my dad, “There was an accident while I was driving your car,” I was trying really hard not to say, “Dad, I wrecked your car. Please don’t punish me.”

I was avoiding taking blame, and sometimes, in professional writing, you may want to avoid assigning blame, and in those cases, it’s OK to use passive voice. You might consider passive voice in the following instances:

· When the subject is unknown or unimportant:
Example: Quite a few vehicles are repossessed each month.
(I don’t know who repossessed the vehicles and it doesn’t matter in this context.)

· When the action, not the doer, is the focus of the sentence:
Example: Many sentences in Symitar eDocs are written in passive voice.
(I want to emphasize the issue, not the people who wrote the text.)

· When you do not want to attribute blame (as when a client makes a mistake or when you do, and you don’t want to take responsibility):
Example: Mistakes were made.

Donna Bradley Burcher |Technical Editor, Advisory | jack henry™

8985 Balboa Ave. | San Diego, CA 92123

Pronouns she/her/hers

Symitar Documentation Services

About Editor’s Corner

Editor’s Corner keeps your communication skills sharp by providing information on grammar, punctuation, JHA style, and all things English. As editors, we spend our days reading, researching, and revising other people’s writing. We love to spend a few extra minutes to share what we learn with you and keep it fun while we’re doing it.

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