Awhile back, I taught a friend all about passive verbs. I thought she understood. But her thank-you email said, "Much appreciated!" I hope she was teasing me.
How about you? Do you understand the difference between passive and active verbs and know when to use each type? If you do, you can write stronger, clearer messages.
What Are Active and Passive Verbs?
Active verbs, also known as active voice verbs, indicate who is doing the action. These sentences have active verbs (italicized):
- Betti and Sonu have written the proposal. (Who has written it? Betti and Sonu)
- Kay gave me an update. (Who gave it? Kay)
- Sydney is painting the entrance. (Who is painting it? Sydney)
Passive verbs, or passive voice verbs, do not directly indicate who is doing the action. These sentences have passive verbs:
- The proposal has been written. (By whom?)
- An update was given. (By whom?)
- The entrance is being painted. (By whom?)
Sometimes people think that any verb phrase must be passive, but that's not true. The verbs "have written" and "is painting" (above) are active.
Test Yourself: Identify Passive Verbs
For each pair of sentences, decide which verb is active and which is passive before reading the comments below.
- a. John organized the fundraiser.
b. The fundraiser has been organized.
- a. You have been given incorrect information.
b. Someone gave you incorrect information.
- a. Rina has been informed of the change by Ed.
b. Ed informed Rina of the change.
Your Microsoft grammar and spelling checker will flag most passive verbs for you. It correctly flagged 1b, 2a, and 3a. Notice in 3a that the doer of the action, Ed, appears in the sentence, but not in the normal, authoritative position before the verb.
The Fuzziness of Passive Verbs
Passive verbs can lead to a lack of accountability, a fuzziness about who is taking or should be taking action.
These sentences can cause trouble because they don’t indicate who is responsible:
1. IT should be informed about the problem. (Who will inform IT?)
2. The trash must be removed daily. (Who will remove the trash?)
3. Your expenses will be paid. (Who will pay them?)
At times, though, it may not matter or you may not know who is doing (or has done) something. In those cases, a passive verb may work fine:
- The plumbing will be repaired between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. (It doesn’t matter who specifically will repair the plumbing. What matters is when it will be repaired.)
- Her car was stolen. (We don’t know who stole the car.)
- The alarm was set off at midnight. (We don’t know who set off the alarm.)
“Mistakes were made” is another passive construction. It doesn’t state who made the mistakes; it is fuzzy about who is responsible. Compare the active “I apologize for my mistakes” and “We made mistakes.” The active versions sound forthright, clear, and powerful.
On the other hand, you may often need to avoid pointing a finger at others. In such situations, the passive “Mistakes were made” works better than the active “You made mistakes” or “Thomas made mistakes,” which accuses your reader or another person.
Cold, Distant Passive Verbs
Passive verbs miss the opportunity to make warm connections with readers. These sentences are cold, when they could be warm and engaging:
- Your contribution was appreciated.
- Your lecture is widely anticipated.
- Your review of the data would be welcomed.
Who appreciated your contribution? Who anticipates your lecture? Who would welcome your review of the data?
Compare these sentences with active verbs:
- We appreciated your contribution.
- Everyone is anticipating your lecture.
- I would welcome your review of the data.
The sentences with active verbs make warmer connections with the reader: We appreciate you. We value you.
Take Credit With Active Verbs
If you use passive verbs, you may be missing out on opportunities to take credit for tasks. One of the sentences below gives the writer credit; the other doesn’t. Which is which?
- I have approved your request and forwarded it to Accounts Payable for processing.
- Your request has been approved and forwarded to Accounts Payable for processing.
In the second example, with a passive verb, it is not clear who deserves credit or thanks for handling the request. In the first example, which has an active verb, the writer has handled the request. The sentence communicates the writer’s competence and creates confidence.
Recognizing Which Passive Verbs to Change
Active verbs are clear and concise, so they are normally the best choice. But here are four places to choose passive verbs instead:
- To avoid blaming: The invoices were deleted by mistake.
- To omit the doer of the action when the doer does not matter: The exterior windows will be washed on Friday afternoon.
- To omit the doer of the action when the doer is unknown: Pages have been cut from this script.
- To avoid coming across too strong with directives: All visitors must be escorted.
Test Yourself: Determine Which Verbs to Change
The passive verbs are italicized in these five sentences. Decide which ones to change and how to change them before reading the comments below.
- It would be appreciated if the form were completed.
- All invoices must be paid within 30 days.
- Describe how the funds will be disbursed.
- The comments should be reviewed in detail.
- It should be noted that the estimate includes both updates.
Number 1 would be stronger with one active verb: “Please complete the form.”
In Number 2 the passive verb works well. “You must pay your invoices within 30 days” sounds bossy.
The statement in Number 3 might appear in a grant application. The passive is okay, but an active verb sounds more vivid: “Describe how you will disburse the funds.”
The action step in Number 4 would be much clearer with an active verb: “Review the comments in detail.”
An active verb would improve Number 5: “Note: The estimate includes both updates.”
At the start of this blog post, I mentioned my friend's passive-verb reply of "Much appreciated." Had she said "I appreciate your help," I'd have felt more confident that she understood passive and active verbs.
How about you? Do you understand passive and active verbs? Test yourself on this blog post, How Fast Can You Change Passive Verbs?
Do you want to work on all aspects of your business writing? Try out my online course Business Writing Tune-Up.
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