Leave passive voice to the politicians.

Recently, someone on my team, who doesn’t think of himself as very fluent in English, said to me,

“I am waiting for the briefs to be written.”

If you asked him about the grammatical breakdown of this sentence, he wouldn’t be able to explain it to you. But instinctively, he knew to say “briefs to be written” instead of saying “I’m waiting for A to write the briefs.” Because the latter actively places the responsibility on someone else. Actively being the operative word.

This is the miracle of passive voice. It’s instinctive, as in most people naturally — even unknowingly — resort to this during uncomfortable situations. A politician who fucks up will say, “mistakes were made”. It assumes no responsibility, therefore has no authority. If you’re writing ‘thought-leadership’ content on the Internet, passive voice is powerless and pointless.

Unless it’s extremely important, avoid the passive voice in your writing. Here’s how.

Know what it is: Before you can avoid it, you should learn to identify it when it creeps up. For that, know what it means. Wren and Martin define a verb being in the passive voice “when its form shows that something is done to the person or thing denoted by the subject. The passive voice is called so because the person ot thing denoted by the subject is not active but passive, that is, suffers or receives some action”.

Basically, ‘Ranjani writes The Whole Works’ is active voice. ‘The Whole Works is written by Ranjani’ is passive voice.

Learn to identify it: If you’re used to academic writing, it might be more natural for you to write in passive voice. In this case, there is a bit of unlearning you need to do. Read everything you write carefully, do one round of proof-reading especially to spot voice problems. Highlight them first to see how prevalent it is.

Rewrite deliberately: Instead of just shuffling the words around hurriedly to change the voice, take a moment to see what you’re doing. Know what kind of sentences are taking you back to passive voice and why. And then rewrite cautiously. This will help you develop a skill for actively.

This isn’t to say that passive voice should be completely avoided. There are times when it might be the right choice.

  • Say, when the doer of the action doesn’t matter. ‘Ranjani has been vaccinated’ would be a perfectly fine — even desirable — way to say it.

  • In certain cases of crime. ‘The writer was found murdered in her farm house’. Even if we knew who the murderer was, this might be the better way to say it.

  • Stylistically, you can also use the passive voice to place blame. For instance, saying, “Parthenium was brought to Bangalore as a plant of decoration by ill-informed and over-enthusiastic politicians.” Changing this to active voice might take away the punch of the ending.

So, the lesson is: If you must use passive voice, do so deliberately and sparingly.