The battle against passive voice has been waged—and lost

A stalwart in the fight for active verb forms throws in the towel after two decades.

I’ve been calling for the death of the passive voice ever since I picked up a blue pencil. (We used these quaint tools to edit copy back in the last century.) But after 20 years on the front lines, I’m ready to admit defeat.

A bit of background: As the term suggests, “passive voice” means that something was done to something else. The road was crossed by the chicken. Short people are discriminated against. I am being screwed.

I find this construction sneaky and whiny. Most people use it to slither out of something they feel guilty about, whether it’s missing a deadline (publication was delayed) or fathering a child out of wedlock (the baby was conceived).

Back in high school, when I was too lazy or nervous to commit to precise language, I used the passive voice liberally. “It is argued that Mark Twain was the most revolutionary writer of his day” keeps things nice and vague—it’s not even clear whether the writer agrees.

My lack of commitment continued through graduate school, where I was prone to statements such as, “It is perhaps difficult to distinguish between the woefully overlooked and the rightfully obscure.”

After completing my (rightfully obscure) thesis, I suddenly found myself in the business world. There was plenty of passive voice floating around here, too, starting with the employee handbook: “Training sessions must be attended by all staff.” “Women are required to wear knee-length skirts in dark colors.”

I hated it. Who wanted me to attend a training session? Who had just cut my insurance benefits in half (as another memo informed me)? Who the heck thought they could dictate what was in my closet?

Why wasn’t anyone accountable?

The fight was on. As a copywriter, as an editor, and in every job I’ve had since then, I’ve made a mission of eliminating the passive voice.

“Clarity and accountability!” has been my battle cry. I’ve written memos and presented PowerPoints on the subject. A colleague gave me a stamp that said, “GET ACTIVE,” and I used it until I could no longer edit on hard copy.

My efforts were useless. Like the heads of the Hydra, every time I lopped off a passive clause, two came back. Whether justifying ourselves to shareholders or placing the blame on another department, business writers can’t seem to get by without the passive voice.

It’s a shame, but this sad fact can no longer be denied.

Deborah Gaines is a former law firm CMO who blogs as The Corporate Writer.

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