What is passive voice?

Before we discuss passive voice and Zombies, let’s look at what passive voice is. Passive voice a way of writing that indicates an action is being done to someone or something.

What is passive voice?

It’s commonly used in scientific and offical documents. For example:

    • 1 litre of water was heated to 900C.
    • 9g of NaCl was then added and stirred until dissolved.
    • A 0.9% solution of saline was created.

In this description of a process, it’s not important to know who boiled the water or measured the salt. What’s important is the process itself and the result.

When do you use passive voice?

Passive voice is used when you either don’t know or don’t want to indicate who performed the action. This might be because you don’t want someone (maybe you) to take the blame or because it can feel like you’re softening the blow when an unpleasant action can’t be attributed to a single person.

For example:

    • The clothes had been strewn around the house.
    • A soft voice was heard in the next room.
    • A mistake was made and will be dealt with by the department.
    • Your services are no longer required.

Why should I care about passive voice?

Passive voice can creep into your business writing because you might be worried you’ll sound a bit silly. Everyone around you seems so smart that you decide to be overly formal, and before you know it, you’re writing in the passive voice.

Don’t believe me? Check out the last monthly report you wrote for your manager. Does it feel dull and lifeless? If it does, you’re probably writing in the passive voice.

Passive voice is acceptable, in fact is even preferred in lots of academic and scientific writing. But it makes reports drag on and feel endlessly boring.

Passive voice ‘and Zombies’

Here’s a fun way to check if you’re writing in the passive voice. First cited by Dr Rebecca Johnson in a tweet, it’s become a staple of writers world-wide.

Add ‘by zombies’ at the end of the sentence. If the sentence still makes sense, it’s in the passive voice.

For example:

    • The request was processed and response made (by zombies).
    • Does it still make sense with ‘by zombies’ at the end? Yes. Then it’s in the passive voice.
    • To make it active, say, ‘We received your request and emailed our response to you’.

Here’s another:

    • Significant savings in production were made in 2023 (by zombies).
    • Does this one make sense with ‘by zombies’ at the end? Yes. Then it’s in the passive voice, too.
    • To make it active, say, ‘The production team made significant savings in 2023′.

Avoid the passive voice like, er Zombies, and you’ll go far.

To see a case study on how to turn a quarterly report from dull passive voice to engaging active one, click here.

And here’s a tiny image of a very non-scary zombie (because I am an absolute chicken and it’s the scariest image I can face).

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