Identifying and eliminating Passive Voice.

Making the transition from school life to work life has more than a few complications. You have your degree and you’re ready to take the world by storm!

…Or are you? Consider the following:

  • Is something as basic as your grammar up to snuff?
  • Do you ever find yourself using passive voice, or worse yet, do you struggle to recognize it?
  • Have you ever been confused as to who is responsible for performing, or has performed, an action?

I sent off an email that I thought made complete sense. In MY head it sounded correct. It simply said “The document has been uploaded” in response to a question. In this situation, I even had to ask where the passive voice was.

That is passive voice, since you’re left asking “Who uploaded the document?”- I should have said “I uploaded the document.”
The definition of a passive voice is where you promote an action as the subject of a line. An example is “I wrote this article”, which is active. “This article was written by me.” is passive, and pointlessly bloated. Rule of thumb is to always put you (the subject) ahead of the action.
I realized after re-reading it, how ambiguous my email was. being clear, direct, and concise are skills that will carry you in the professional world. Striving to make sure your writing is as clear to the reader as it is to the writer is critical. Just because it makes sense to you does not mean everyone else will interpret it the same way.
But how do you recognize this? When people speak in passive voice, they are removing the “doer”.
Usually, this is subconscious, but the mode is the same– it’s harder for us to figure out what is going on and who is taking action. The result of passive voice is no action.

Passive voice is also something We are working on every single day. Similar to how a number/metric must always have a noun, “20” versus “20 apples”, all tasks and actions must also have a clear owner. “I moved this” versus “This was moved”. “Dennis and I are recording” vs “Recording is happening.”

It is a little tough to catch it all the time, but In a business setting, we must eliminate all usage of passive voice– especially when doing project coordination, or speaking with a client. Every action must have a clear owner that comes first, and every project needs someone responsible for completing a task- adhering to the RACI (Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, Informed) model.
Thinking in passive voice is to drastically eliminate your effectiveness and accountability- It’s not something innocuous, such as the your and you’re grammar problem or the “ums” in most people’s speech; it detaches all ownership of actions, making it hard to trace who did what, which propagates confusion.
Here’s a few real-world examples we’ve picked from emails, with corrections:

“Call has already been booked.” vs. “I booked the call, it’s Thursday at 10.”

Who booked the call? I booked the call.
“This email is to confirm that this account is at inbox zero.” vs. “This is Bob confirming that this account is at inbox zero.”
Who sent this email? Bob sent the email.
“More updates to come as these get closed out.” vs. “I will provide more updates as these get closed out.”
Who should we expect updates from? I will send them.
“This thread was moved here” vs. “I moved the thread to here.”
Who moved the thread? I did.
This is less about being picky concerning grammatical rules and more about being action-oriented. Passive voice often comes from a mindset of unaccountability, where it’s someone else’s fault and where we don’t step up as owners of our actions.
Do you now see how using direct language ensures everyone is on the same page?

Comments 1

  1. Great post Dennis. I never thought about how passive voice is less informationally dense than active voice. Passive voice writing is a slippery hole to fall into since people have a tendency to write the way they think. People think in terms of passive voice since it put the object of their experience first and the subject being themselves occurs in the brain by default.

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