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Procedures: No Place for Passive Verbs

In a recent Better Business Writing class, an accounts payable professional was working on several procedures she had brought to class to revise. They included these sentences:

Batches should be entered by 10 a.m.
The batch can then be given to the coordinator.
Ensure that all pays are entered in a timely manner.

Each of those sentences has a problem: a passive verb. Passive verbs weaken procedures and make them confusing.

Time out for a definition: A passive verb (also known as a verb in “passive voice”) is a construction in which the subject does not perform the action.

Here are her sentences with the passive verbs underlined:

Batches should be entered by 10 a.m.
Batches is the subject, but the batches do not enter themselves. Someone should enter them, but the sentence does not tell who.

The batch can then be given to the coordinator.
Once again, batch, the subject, is not performing the action. Someone can give the batch to the coordinator, but the sentence does not tell who.

Ensure that all pays are entered in a timely manner.
Here the subject is you, as in “You ensure.” But in the remainder of the sentence (a clause), pays is the subject. However, the clause does not state who is entering the pays.

As step-by-step instructions, procedures must be clear about who is doing what. That is why procedures are no place for passive verbs. The sentences below use active verbs (also known as verbs in “active voice”). They make it clear who should perform the action. It is you, the reader.

Enter the batches by 10 a.m.
Then give the batch to the coordinator.
Be sure to enter all pays in a timely manner.

Passive verbs have a bad reputation, but not all of it is deserved. They do have their perfect places. Please see my tip, “Know Where Passive Verbs Belong.”

Tomorrow watch for a post on how to be sure your Microsoft Office spelling and grammar checker is finding passives for you.


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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

4 comments on “Procedures: No Place for Passive Verbs”

  • Lynn, I think I learned from you how to use active voice when writing procedural steps many years ago. I just finished editing instructions for a client’s performance management process. The original document was full of passive voice and it was really hard to figure out who was responsible for what in the process. The revised document is much, much easier to read and much clearer to follow. Thanks for your great work.

  • Cindy, I can’t take credit for your excellent writing, but thanks for the compliment.

    I recently read several articles you posted on I was struck by how clear–and helpful–your steps were. Nice job!


  • Lyn, i am currently trying to apply for a business writing job and they are asking for a sample of a business writing work i already did. what specifically are they asking us? a mock work or a real one (submitted and used)?

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