Add “punch” to your sentences by avoiding the passive voice!

Today we discuss the passive voice. The use of passive voice—in which the subject of the clause doesn’t perform the action of the verb (“The baseball was thrown by the pitcher” versus “The pitcher threw the baseball”)—is generally discouraged. Passive voice can be identified by a be-verb followed by a past participle (usually a verb ending in –ed), e.g.:

  • is dismissed
  • are followed
  • was reversed
  • were decided

It is also common for a passive-voice sentence to omit the actor altogether, e.g.:

  • Mistakes were made.
  • The deadline was missed.

The problem with the passive voice is that it can create ambiguity about who is doing the acting in a sentence. See State ex rel Click v. Brownhill, 331 Or. 500, 509, 15 P.3d 990 (2000) (Durham, J., concurring) (ambiguity in statute arose because of the use of the phrase “shall not be used”; through use of passive voice, legislature failed to identify who “shall not use”). It also adds unnecessary words and makes it harder for your reader to process the information.

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. In the following introductory paragraph it was important to quickly communicate the fact that two contracts were at issue in the lawsuit, and that they had both been breached:

Two contracts were breached. The first contract—an Inventory Security Agreement between Finance Corporation and Alpine Homes—Alpine breached when it failed to pay Finance Corp. after selling manufactured homes financed by Finance Corp. The second contract—a Guaranty which obligated Gary Smith (Alpine’s president and sole shareholder) to pay for inventory financed by Fianance Corp. if Alpine did not pay—Smith breached by refusing to pay the amount due to Finance Corp. There is no dispute that these two breaches occurred.

Nevertheless, since the passive voice is a prime source of unclarity, you should avoid using it whenever possible.

That is all for now …

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