Be more active

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Posted: April 22, 2020
Category: The mechanics of writing
Comments: 0

What’s wrong with this sentence?
‘A decision was made by the committee.’

The problem is that it’s in passive voice. Passive voice is an indirect way of saying something that puts the subject at the end of the sentence, instead of the beginning.

In general, we should write in active voice, rather than passive. An active way to express the same thing would be:

‘The committee decided.’

Sometimes, when we use passive voice, we drop off the subject altogether:

‘A decision was made.’

Can you see the problem? We don’t know who made the decision. The use of too much passive voice can be a way of evading responsibility. It is also less direct and robust.

Compare these two sentences:

‘Further investigation will be required to determine the cause of the electrical failure.’

‘Our maintenance section will investigate the cause of the electrical failure.’

The first sentence is written in passive voice and we don’t know who’s responsible for taking action. The second sentence is much stronger and we feel more confident that the lights will go on.

The use of passive voice isn’t a grammatical error. Sometimes you choose it to be more diplomatic. For example, instead of saying, ‘Sandra Hogan made a big mistake’, you might let me off the hook by saying, ‘A mistake was made.’

Passive voice has a place in the English language but it’s badly over-used in government and you can make your writing more powerful and effective by paying attention to this simple writing tip: write most of the time in active voice unless there is a special reason not to.

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