In Defense of the Passive Voice

passive-voiceOver lunch, I had a conversation with a friend who’s a journalist for a radio news station. It was when I realized how business writers and journalists communicate differently.

I work in corporate affairs for a bank, so instead of cash or balance sheets or deposit slips, I have words and paragraphs. From emails to manuals to phone calls to diagrams to policy circulars — business correspondence is the soul of my desk. And believe me, I sometimes talk like I’m reading a memo.

“Phony!” He says, as he sips his Coke. “Business communication is full of phony stuff!” Well, I get him, he should be frank and direct to the point. He’s a journalist and it’s his opinion, but I needed to react.

“No, not phony.” I replied with all due politeness. “Business communication is civil and courteous, not phony!”

I concluded: that journalists tell stories. They describe people and events and feelings, so they need to be as concrete and vivid as possible. On the other hand, business writers tell conditions. They describe situations and tendencies and advice, so they need to be as objective and emphatic as possible.

Another aha-moment happened a while ago at work: Journalists and business writers are different by their preference in voice — active and passive, respectively.

I learned about the two voices in sixth grade, and over the years of googling grammar rules, I always come across pieces of advice to get rid of the passive voice and to use its counterpart instead. Why the discrimination?

I am a fan of the passive voice. I use it at work most of the time. And it bugs me when I read tips that prefer active voice over passive voice. It’s just not fair. Passive voice has its wonders, too. In fact, one of its magics is that it can obscure the doer of the action in order to emphasize the receiver of the action. See, it’s not egoistic!

Simple samples:

Say: “The meeting was moved to Monday at 9:00 AM.”
Instead of: “Maria moved the meeting to Monday at 9:00 AM.”
Because who cares about who moved the schedule?

Say: “Budget is approved.
Instead of: “The Board of Directors approved the budget.
Because everyone knows who approves budgets, anyway.

Say: “The project was successfully implemented in spite of budget cuts.
Instead of: “In spite of budget cuts, Josh implemented the project successfully.”
Because Josh wants to be modest about his accomplishment and he doesn’t want to seem like a credit-grabber.

Passive and active voices are all about style. No grammar rule dictates which is more correct. It’s not like being male and female with a clear dichotomy. It’s not like north or south pole. It’s more of like a pair of spoon and fork. They complement each other as long as the communicator uses them appropriately.

You see, language is like music. No style is better than the other because language is dynamic, fluid, and alive. We use it in various contexts. We use it at home, at work, and even at lunch dates. Image source.

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