Sunday, September 18, 2011

Active voice vs. passive voice... a story few will appreciate

When confronted with boredom, I typically choose to combat this by reading anything nearby. Usually the internet is my reading material of choice. Sometimes, though, I have to get creative. The other day, looking for something to do and having no current access to the internet, I came across a correspondence manual from an old job.

It looked like it was several years old and the inside cover confirmed that this was written in 2005. I shrugged and sat down to see what sort of advice and ancient wisdom the tome would impart. The first few chapters were based on general writing technique, such as when to use a period or comma. And did you know that one exclamation point is always sufficient? (emphasis included from the book). I couldn't believe it!!

But then I looked back at my previous sentence and found that the second exclamation does look a little awkward and out of place, like she showed up to a party wearing the same exact dress as the other exclamation point. I felt bad for inflicting that sort of punishment on an innocent punctuation mark and vowed to never again misuse my punctuation.

I skimmed over the next section, which was a list of often misspelled words followed by a list of often misused words.

Then, I got to the part that involved actually writing letters. First there was a lot of information on how to write a clear and concise letter - stick to short sentences and if the letter goes over a page long, check to make sure you are not adding unimportant details.

Then I got to the part that made me laugh.

The manual discussed using the active voice over the passive voice. I'll attempt to describe this briefly so even those who don't give a whit about the English language can perhaps find the amusement as well.

The active voice arranges items in a sentence to let you know who is doing what. Such as, "I wrote the most amazing blog post ever about the passive voice." In that sentence, I wrote something.

The passive voice would turn that shit around and emphasize the what over the who. Such as, "The most amazing blog post ever about the passive voice was written today." You still get to know what happened, but you don't really know who did it.

The correspondence manual correctly noted that the active voice is superior because it lends itself to shorter, clearer sentences. It also correctly noted that the passive voice avoids assigning responsibility and therefore should be avoided.

This was followed by a few short examples of when the passive voice is acceptable.

And I kid you not, the first example was "Use the passive voice when it is best to avoid naming names," followed by the example sentence "A mistake was made during your recent audit procedure." ("by our company," being the unspoken ending of the sentence.)

I laughed.

And then I worried that I am kind of lame for finding that to be hilarious, so I quickly recounted this story to my husband, who looked at me blankly as I giggled madly at my "punchline."

And then I wrote this up and worried for a bit that everyone else is reading this with the same blank stare and slight confusion and then I posted it anyway because it still makes me laugh.


  1. (blank stare)

    Jk, the bit about the audit was pretty funny.


  2. Thanks Tim! (And it's ok if you blank stare. I understand).