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A Tip on Passive Verbs

In a Better Business Writing class this week, we were talking–as we often do–about the use of passive verbs. (These are sometimes called “passive voice” verbs.) We were discussing a letter to which a contract was attached, and the letter included instructions about completing the contract.

The writer wondered whether she should use passive verbs in her letter. Here is an example of the type of sentence that concerned her:

The contract must be completed by March 20.

Her alternative would be to use an active voice verb:

You must complete the contract by March 20.

Is that too direct? Too pushy? Maybe. It depends on the tone of the entire letter. If the letter is filled with “You musts,” some of them should probably be changed to passive verbs.

In her letter, though, she can easily avoid passives when writing about what she or her company must do:

We must receive your contract by March 20.

That sentence is more direct (using we) than the passive alternative:

Your contract must be received by March 20.

Note: Microsoft Office flags passive verbs if you have your grammar and spelling checker set to do so. Read about how to do that here.

Did you notice that I used four passive verbs in this post? (That is in addition to the examples.) Microsoft identified them all.

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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.