Passive Voice: The Nightmare Maker

That might have scared you. In fact, you may have thought back to those English classes in high school or that one writing class you were forced to take in university. There the teacher or professor was at the front of the room, looking very earnest and concerned about the “voice” in your writing.

You may have thought this was very interesting. Probably not, though.

As scary as the term passive voice may be, please realize that you already use it correctly every single day. It’s part of your normal speech and maybe your writing too.

Technically, passive voice is formed using the verb (1) ‘to be,’ (2) ‘to get,’ (3) ‘to have + to be,’ (4) or a modal verb + ‘to be’ followed by a past participle, and is usually followed by a by-phrase.
Huh? What?

Enough with the grammar book definition. Here’s the same thing in plain English.

(1) John was admitted to the nightclub by the front door staff. / We are forced to swallow the costs of this oversight according to the terms of the contract our company signed (here, “according to” carries the meaning of “by”)

Note that it is perfectly acceptable to omit the by-phrase –> John was admitted to the nightclub / We are forced to swallow the costs of this oversight. This is not always the case, but a simple reading of the sentence will tell you instantly if you can. Trust your ear.

(2) John got admitted to the nightclub by the front door staff / We got hammered by the costs of this oversight according to the terms of the contract our company signed.

We can omit the by-phrase from the first one here –> John got admitted to the nightclub, but not the second –> We got hammered, because the meaning of the second sentence changes in this case. You already knew this, though, because you trust your ear.

(3) John has been admitted to the nightclub by the front door staff / We have been forced to swallow the costs of this oversight according to the terms of the contract our company signed.

(4) Modal verbs are words like can, could, would, should, may, might, must, will, and shall (rare). They denote how sure we are of something happening or being true. Once again, trust your ear. It’s your best guide.
John should be admitted to the nightclub by the front door staff / John could be admitted to the nightclub by the front door staff / John may be admitted to the nightclub by the front door staff / John might be admitted to the nightclub by the front door staff / John will be admitted to the nightclub by the front door staff
We can be forced to swallow the costs of this oversight according to the terms of the contract our company signed / We could be forced to swallow the costs of this oversight according to the terms of the contract our company signed / We may be forced to swallow the costs of this oversight according to the terms of the contract our company signed / We might be forced to swallow the costs of this oversight according to the terms of the contract our company signed / We will be forced to swallow the costs of this oversight according to the terms of the contract our company signed.

All this seems rather complicated. Not really. Read these sentences again. You will see that each one sounds correct to your ear.

Why don’t we just say?

The front door staff admitted John to the nightclub, or
According to the terms of our contract, we must swallow the costs of the oversight.
Or even, We must swallow the costs of the oversight.

Great question. In fact, those last three sentences say the same thing in active voice. In the first one, the front door staff did the admitting. In the next two, we must do the swallowing (the phrase “According to the terms of our contract” is a prefatory phrase).

So why would we ever write in passive voice? It seems to result in longer and more complex sentences.

It does.

• If the person or thing doing the action is unknown, you have to use the passive voice –> I was caught in the rain / Theories of child-rearing have been discussed for many years.
• If the person or thing doing the action is irrelevant, you can use the passive voice –> The right to vote was given to all citizens years ago / The right to vote should be allowed for all citizens over 18 years of age.

Colons can be used to introduce an explanatory phrase. This is a phrase that gives more information directly related to what comes before the colon.

  • We need to discuss the budget decisions made at last week’s meeting: sales plummeted.
  • The CEO’s latest directive has redefined the cost analysis parameters we were relying upon when we submitted our proposal: let’s meet to discuss this issue (Note: what comes after the colon can be a complete sentence [here] or phrase [first example] provided the meaning is crystal clear).

And by far the most common use of passive voice in business:

• If you wish to hide or distance yourself from responsibility for something, use the passive voice –> I was told that this is what you required / Our decision may be shown to have been the best one in the long term (It almost hurts me to write such convoluted gibberish).

Now that you’ve managed to digest all of this, here is a simple, short, and easy way to decide if you should send that e-mail or submit that report as is:

Read it out loud.

If it sounds good to your inner monitor, it almost certainly is. The caveat here is that you must read it out loud. Silent reading does not have the same effect here. Our amazing brains will fill in words, substitute phrases, and add the ‘I know what I meant here’ factor. None of these work when you read out loud.

Simon Brown, B.A., B.Ed., TESL

Questions? Suggestions? Please e-mail me at adeptcopywriting@gmail.com.

P.S. If you find this subject really interesting, and you just can’t get enough, take a look at https://www.ego4u.com/en/cram-up/grammar/passive.