Amateurs accept platitudes about passive voice

“Passive voice is bad,” cry self-proclaimed (but undereducated) writing experts.  I’ve known lots of these folks who can’t accurately identify a passive. And very few folks who can accurately define it. And even fewer who can provide amateur writers with more useful advice than this platitude. (In fact, I can’t accurately call it a platitude since it is simply wrong rather than meaningless!)

Any “expert” who focuses on limiting your stylistic choices should be ignored.  Experts have many tools to accomplish their goals. It’s the same with expert writers. (I warned you that it is not easy to become a pro writer.) Language allows us multiple ways of saying the same thing for a reason. Every style is appropriate in some context–otherwise it wouldn’t exist.  Yes. It all comes back to rhetorical context AGAIN. The style of my blog posts is different from the style of my video tutorials because their contexts (or genres) are different. The blog posts are expressive, more selfish. If I inform or entertain my professional peers at the same time, that’s lagniappe. They hardly count as “professional” writing. (I mean I won’t be listing them on my vita!) The tutorials, on the other hand, are meant to inform amateurs so they’re more selfless, formal, professional.

The point is this: You need not avoid passive voice. You just need to choose it for the right contexts. (For any who want to refute me by quoting Strunk & White, I refer you to 50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice.)

A new video tutorial on active and passive voice is being prepared. It should help amateurs think intelligently about the use of passive voice in workplace documents. The tutorial refers to an Applicant Rejection Letter. It was adapted by me based on a sample document from Susan M. Heathfield for About.com on Human Resources (humanresources.about.com). The document was written within the following context:

  • Writer: a hiring manager at a publishing company
  • Readers: an applicant for a sales manager position
  • Bottom line message: while the applicant was rejected for the management position, the company would like to interview her for a different position

For those of you who can’t resist, let us know how many passives you find in that last 5-sentence paragraph.

3 thoughts on “Amateurs accept platitudes about passive voice

  1. There are four passives in the five-sentence paragraph (including the bulleted list).
    (S1) “is being prepared”
    (S4) “was adapted”
    (S5) “was written” & “was rejected”

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    • I usually mark these comments as spam. But today I’m letting this one through just so I can acknowledge that those of us who think ORIGINAL content actually has value may be fighting a losing battle . . . Sigh.

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