Saturday, January 31, 2009

Prefer active voice!

In business we communicate for action, or for transaction. We write to inform, query, motivate, persuade. We provide information to colleagues and clients, ask for information, or try to persuade the troops or clients to take some action.

If we write for action, then, and not just to say hello, in business, it stands to reason we will write more effectively in the active voice of the verb.

Oh no, what does this mean, you ask, a grammar lesson? Well, yes, it means a trip down memory lane to the days of the 8th grade, or as my friends from Asia say, the 8th form. Right, those days when you were filled with raging hormones that expressed themselves mostly in pimples and hair in places you didn't want it.

On those days when you dragged yourself out of bed at 6:30AM to wash your face, brush your teeth, dress, swallow a quick glass of orange juice and piece of toast and go wait for the school bus, you knew you'd be treated to a lesson in active and passive voice by the aging English teacher, Miss Crumples.

And what did Miss Crumples demand that you learn? She probably drilled into you the notion that in the active voice the subject does the action and in the passive voice the subject receives the action. Miss Crumples probably said, "The dog bit the man. That's the subject doing the action and the object receiving the action. Now, Jimmy, how do you express the same sentence in the passive voice?" Little Jimmy Jones, the class overachiever, dutifully responded, "The man was bit by the dog, Miss Crumples." And, Miss Crumples smiled delightedly while diagramming the sentence amidst a halo of chalk dust.

If you notice, in the sentence above the passive voice is formed (a passive construction itself) with a being verb form - is, am, are, was, were, be, being, been - and an action verb, followed by the preposition "by." It functions poorly in business writing for a number of reasons. Most importantly, it disguises responsibility, ala, "The project specifications were not completed on time." OK, who was it that didn't complete the project specifications on time? Was it you? Come on, own up!

Passive constructions are usually accompanied by other weak writing forms, such as nominals, verbs that have been turned into nouns. Together they help create weak writing. ("The project specification allocations were not enumerated by the system control coordinator." In that sentence, "allocations" is a nominal.)

But, those astute among you will see that I have used passive voice all through this post. Why did I do that? Well, passive voice is perfectly acceptable in a variety of circumstances. Use passive voice when the reader doesn't care who did the action (my use herein), when you don't want the reader to know who did the action, when you don't know who did the action, when the receiver of the action is more important than the doer and when you wish to be less confrontational.

Otherwise, prefer the active voice of the verb. Make those subjects do the action. Show accountability. Confront those offenders. Your readers will identify the scoundrel among them who didn't do his work. They will understand clearly, when you give them responsibility, what it is you want them to do.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Ed,

    Quite prolific now on the blog i see..lovely. And indeed the articles are getting more incisive with time...

    Cheers, Chirantan.