Business writers have been told to remove passive voice in their writing so often that I think we forget just how useful it can be. To me, passive voice in business writing is more of a necessary evil than something that must be banished at all costs.
First, let’s be clear what passive voice is. In the illustration above, the top sentence is in passive voice, with the person who performed the action mentioned last. Below, we rewrote the sentence to be in active voice. The person who performed the action is mentioned first.
Passive voice demonstrates its usefulness nearly every day in business writing. Need to announce a donation but keep the donor anonymous? Need to respond to an inquiry today but lacking some key facts? Have to talk about a decision but don’t want to emphasize who made it? Meet your new best friend, passive voice. Passive voice allows us to communicate when we don’t have all the facts, or when we want to emphasize an action but not the actor. Here are some examples of acceptable, even necessary, passive voice use:
- A new computer was donated to the homeless shelter.
- The decision was made by the board of directors today.
Its use as a rhetorical device to “calm the passions” spans thousands of years, according to Jay Heinrichs, author of a good speech-writing book called “Thank You For Arguing.” Scientists use it to describe research findings, business people use it to talk about initiatives and projects, politicians use it when speaking about legislation or oversight. It is used sometimes as a way to divorce emotions from reason and project an objective voice.
In every day life, passive voice can help you describe a mistake or failure without finger-pointing. “My birthday dinner was a disaster” instead of “Joaquin really screwed up.” Of course, if you are Joaquin, using passive voice to describe your own mistakes can sound weasel-y, but that’s another topic.
We can certainly improve our writing by deleting unnecessary passive voice sentence structures. But eradicate it entirely? That would be a mistake.