If you use a grammar-check feature, your sentences probably get flagged at times for a fault called “Passive Voice.” This flag is typically accompanied by advice to “Consider rewriting with an active voice verb.”

Is this fault serious? No! In fact, our grammar-checker has already flagged three of our sentences at the beginning of this Business Writing Tip, and we aren’t worried a bit.

We aren’t worried, but we do pay attention. That’s because there is a lot of good advice about limiting the use of passive verbs. For instance, we are told to change:

“The surface should be primed” (passive) to “Prime the surface” (active). This change makes sense. Readers need precise instructions.

“Your gift is appreciated” (passive) to “We appreciate your gift” (active). This is another fine suggestion. “Is appreciated” sounds impersonal, whereas “We appreciate” feels warm.

When we make these changes, we are replacing wordy, vague phrases with concise, direct words. That’s excellent.

But there are four places where passive verbs fit just right:


1. When you don’t know who performed the action.

Passive:

Her car was stolen twice.

Not:

Someone stole her car twice.

2. When it doesn’t matter who performs the action.

Passive:

The boards are pre-cut.

Not:

A worker pre-cuts the boards.

3. When we want to avoid blaming someone.

Passive:

The drawings were lost.

Not:

Andy lost the drawings.

4. When we want to soften a directive.

Passive:

This paragraph could be shortened.

Not:

Shorten this paragraph.

Passive verbs are perfect in these four instances. Likewise, the passive verbs in our opening sentences also work well (“get flagged” and “is typically accompanied”).

Know where passives verbs belong, and you won’t be intimidated by your grammar-check software again. Our grammar-checker just flagged the previous sentence, but we know the passive verb there suits our purpose and sounds just right!

 
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