Use the Active Voice
- On March 10, 2017
Engulfed in a months-long scandal over his role in the 2013 George Washington Bridge lane-closure scandal, Governor Chris Christie conceded some wrongdoing in his 2014 State of the State address.
“Mistakes were made,” he said, using the passive voice, which kept him from having to say who actually made the mistakes. I don’t know about you but I thought, “This guy has something to hide.”
Governor Christie’s is an extreme example of the vague effect you get when you use the passive voice. Technically speaking, that’s when the subject (in this case mistakes) is acted upon (were made) and the person or object performing the action is named later on in the sentence—or not at all, as in the Christie example.
Had the governor said, “Mistakes were made by some people in my administration,” he still would have been talking in the passive voice, and the focus still would have been on the mistakes—not the guilty party. It is hard to imagine him using the active voice to say, “My administration made a mistake” and almost inconceivable to think he ever would have come out with, “I made a mistake.”
Too often, businesspeople—with nothing to hide—talk and write in the passive voice, compromising the clarity and strength of what they’re communicating. The active voice—where the subject is performing the action—is more concise, clear, and powerful. When you write in the active voice, you sound more confident, which is one of the many reasons it makes good business sense to use it.
Just recently, the following headline—in the active voice—caught my attention: “A Sedentary Lifestyle Will Harm Millennials.” It was in The Wall Street Journal as part of a roundup of insights from a panel of experts. As the mother of two millennials who spend a lot of time on the couch, I read on: “Unfortunately, a more sedentary lifestyle is developing among our young people,” one of the panel experts wrote. “Too much time is spent in front of electronic devices and too little time being active.”
I wondered why the expert used the passive, not active, voice—and what he was comparing the millennial lifestyle to (that of peppy baby boomers?). To my mind, he should have said, “Our young people are developing a sedentary lifestyle. They spend too much time in front of electronic devices and not enough time being active.”
The writer was billed as an expert. He’s entitled to an opinion.