PR pros have to be especially careful.


You’ve probably heard lectures against the passive voice since you were in grade school. It’s practically the boogieman of grammar: always lurking, ready to creep into your writing the moment you let your attention wander.

But why is the passive voice such a problem? Why do we combat it with such fervor? And what are the pitfalls of using it in communications and business writing?

Passive voice vs. active voice

Think about a passive person. They just sit there and things happen to them. A gift is given to them. A show is watched by them. They do not act; life acts upon them.

Now think of an active person. They do things! They give gifts. They write books. They are the subject and the hero of their own story.

That’s the difference between active and passive voice writing in a nutshell.

 

 

In active voice, the subject of the sentence is taking an action. The noun does the verb, in grammatical terms. The hero defeats the villain – that’s active voice.

In passive voice, the order is flipped. The villain is defeated by the hero is passive voice. The subject of the sentence here, the villain, is being acted upon by the hero. He isn’t acting himself. He is a recipient of the action. Usually, you can spot passive voice construction through its use of the verb “to be” and its various irregularly conjugated forms – is, are, were, was, etc.

Who cares?

This might all sound like grammatical nerdery. Subjects and predicates are things you left behind when you passed the SAT. But even if you aren’t paying attention to the terminology, the application still matters in day-to-day communications work.

First, passive voice just uses more words. When you’re writing social copy, a speech or something for a digital signage board, every word counts. Why waste them on words as boring as “to be”? You’re not Hamlet.

Second, the passive voice requires us to unspool a sentence in our minds. Wait, what happened to whom? English is set up to generally default to subjects acting upon other objects, rather than writing the sentences in reverse. You’re introducing more steps between reading and comprehension, and in an industry where you’re constantly fighting for attention, why would you want to do that?

But in some contexts, the passive voice can do more than simply impede comprehension or rack up your word count. It can just get you into trouble.

The passive voice avoids responsibility

Flash back to being a child. Your parent comes home from work and finds a crime scene: a shattered vase.

“Do you know what happened to the vase?”

“It got broken,” innocent childhood you replies. Because even back then, you knew that passive voice was a way of getting out of taking responsibility for something that happened.

You didn’t break the vase playing football in the house. It merely was broken by the forces of the universe. No one to blame, really. The vase was broken. How sad.

Now take this out of your childhood home and into the boardroom.

“Layoffs are being carried out,” your CEO tells your staff in an all-hands meeting. Again, they are a force of nature, something unpredictable rather than an action taken by your organization.

“We have made the tough decision to layoff portions of our staff,” your CEO says instead. She is owning the difficult action, putting a human face and a sense of responsibility onto the layoffs. While the result is the same, people losing their jobs, those who remain will better understand who made the choice and who stands behind it.

Or apply it to your customers.

“A wheelchair was broken in transit,” your statement says after an influencer complained that their mobility aid was damaged.

Or it could read instead: “We made a mistake. Our team damaged a wheelchair. We’re instituting new training measure to ensure this doesn’t happen again.”

One phrasing takes responsibility. The other skirts it.

Now, obviously there are times when you can’t outright take ownership of a situation. Maybe it isn’t your fault. Maybe legal is telling you to keep it vague. The passive voice still has a place in your writing.

But whenever possible, stop and ask yourself: can this sentence be active? What would that mean, not just for the quality of my writing, but for the people reading it?

You might be surprised at the difference.

Allison Carter is editor-in-chief of PR Daily. Follow her on or LinkedIn.

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