This is Part 2 of a four part series. See Part 1 on simplifying language.
We’ve all heard of the active and passive voice in writing. “Use the active voice” is often the first critique we receive on our writing in college English courses. But the rules for using passive and active often seem arbitrary. To aid in sentence clarity, we’re told to use the active voice, but no one provides us with the rules for using the passive voice.
The easiest way to identify passive voice in a sentence is to search for auxiliary forms of the verb to be and the past participle of the action verb (walked, eaten, stood, ate). Forms of to be include am/are/is; was/were; have been/has been/had been; will be/will have been. For example: The deal was brokered by the team. Here the auxiliary form of to be is “was” and the action verb is “brokered.” Passive constructions will be paired with past participles in sentences.
If we use the active voice, we make our sentences more direct by naming the action undertaken by the subject of the sentence. For example: The team brokered the deal. In this active sentence, the action of brokering the deal is directly transferred to the subject, the team. If we use the passive voice, the subject expresses the end result of an action. For example: The deal was brokered by the team. Here the subject reveals the result of an action, which appears before the subject in the sentence.
When deciding between the active and passive voice, it’s helpful to consider word count. In the above example, the active sentence contains 5 words while the passive contains 7. Imagine a document filled with 20 sentences––between passive and active the difference can potentially be 40 words. And 40 words can be the difference between clear or murky messaging.
Yet passive voice has its place. If in a longer piece of writing the subject stays the same, then it’s okay to use the passive because the reader will know that you’re referring to the same subject. You can also use the passive to avoid stating responsibility. For example: The employees who are indicted on charges of fraud can be sent to prison. In this example, the sentence does not directly state who is responsible for the action, merely that some employees have the possibility of going to prison as a result of their fraud charges. Passive voice can also be used to avoid using all-male pronouns and first person-singular pronouns; it can also be used to deflect responsibility or conceal information.
How companies use the passive and active may communicate different ideas. Consider Slack’s main message on their home page, as of March 25, 2019: “Slack is a collaboration hub for work, no matter what work you do. It’s a place where conversations happen, decisions are made, and information is always at your fingertips. With Slack, your team is better connected.” Breaking down the sentence by passive/active we get: Slack is a collaboration hub (passive). It’s a place where conversations happen (passive), decisions are made (passive), and information is always at your fingertips (passive). With Slack, your team is better connected (passive).
For comparison, let’s convert the entire message into the active voice: “Slack provides a hub for collaboration, no matter what work you do. With Slack, conversation happens, decisions occur, and information moves. Slack connects your team.” There’s a big difference between the two. The passive construction contains 36 words while the active contains 25––a difference of 11 words. The passive construction emphasizes what Slack is while the active emphasizes what Slack enables teams to do. Last, the passive emphasizes all the work that happens on Slack’s platform, while the active underscores how using Slack leads to different levels of productivity.
As a company, Slack decided to use the passive voice to underscore the existential qualities of its platform. If we remove the passive voice, the message underscores the mere instrumentality of Slack: Slack provides X; Slack does Y; and Slack connects Z. The active has the effect of making Slack appear invisible. Using a verb form of to be (“is”), Slack manages to highlight not only the expedient uses of its platform but also its unique cultural characteristics that will meld and merge within a given company. In my view, the passive construction highlights the right properties of Slack in its messaging, but the addition of some active sentence constructions may have made the message more concise while not diminishing its characteristics. In the end, there’s always a choice (and choices) to make that will affect various components of the message.*
*The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of the companies mentioned.