by Barbara McNichol
Do you know the difference between an “active” voice and a “passive” voice? Do you know when—and how—to use active verbs and passive verbs to get your message across?
Should you even care?
Yes. Because choosing the right voice changes your message. Don’t let a poor choice trip you up!
Here’s an explanation of the difference between the two voices and why you should pay attention.
How will I recognize active verbs?
These sentences feature active verbs:
- Joanna manages the human resources department.
- Spencer purchases all the office supplies.
- Erik generates $1 million in annual revenue.
Read the same sentences using passive verbs:
- The human resources department is being managed by Joanna.
- All the office supplies are being purchased by Spencer.
- $1 million in annual revenue is being generated by Erik.
The first group of sentences follows a Subject + Verb + Object structure. The second set gets the same message across but in more words. Yet, it lacks clarity and precision.
Why should I choose active instead of passive verbs?
Consider these three reasons:
- Active verbs declare who or what is—or should be—performing the action. You avoid confusion, guesswork, and dodging responsibility. (More on this point to follow.)
- Active verbs make your writing flow better. In business writing especially, your colleagues and clients demand you get to the point quickly.
- Active verbs eliminate the need for extra words, which requires striving to “whack wordiness” in your writing.
When should I use a passive voice?
If you can’t identify the “doer” of the action—the subject—the sentence has probably been constructed in the passive voice.
Even when the subject is clear, though, two clues help you identify “passive” sentences:
- The word “by”
- Variations of the verb “to be”
Use of a passive voice often leads to weasel-like language and can undermine your credibility in business communication. Your readers might think you’re avoiding taking responsibility for an aspect of your company’s service. This could set them on edge.
However, a passive voice can be useful when you require ambiguity. For example:
- Refunds will not be issued.
- Email inquiries will be answered in two business days.
- Votes will be tallied at the end of each session.
Read the same sentences with an active voice:
- The accounting department will not issue refunds.
- Jackson is responsible for answering email inquiries in two business days.
- The nomination committee will tally votes at the end of each session.
Using passive voice can be appropriate when you honestly don’t know the identity of the subject. For example:
- The bank was robbed this afternoon.
- Your product will be delivered tomorrow.
- A ten-thousand-dollar donation was made at the fundraiser.
As details become available, though, you can rewrite the sentences in active voice:
- A former employee, Robert Smith, robbed the bank this afternoon.
- Helen will deliver your product tomorrow.
- The Watson family made a ten-thousand-dollar donation at the fundraiser.
Using active verbs gets others to act.
Readers who understand who is doing the action, where, when, and why, without having to filter through extra words will likely join your cause. This applies to a discussion, a marketing campaign, or even a job application.
Consider these examples:
Passive: Public meetings are being held by the engineering team to discuss the merits of our building proposal.
- Active: The public is invited to meetings with the engineering team to discuss our building proposal.
- Passive: Feedback will be encouraged when our engineering team provides their update to the community.
- Active: The community is encouraged to provide feedback to the engineering team.
- Passive: Repairs are being done on the faulty security software by our IT department.
- Active: The IT department is repairing the faulty security software.
Now it’s your turn. (It’s okay to make up a subject here. Write your answer in the Comments section below.)
- Passive: This policy is being implemented in an effort to streamline our process.
Brevity is still bliss.
When writing fiction or nonfiction for recreational readers, using an interesting turn of phrase or literary device like alliteration makes reading a joy. But when readers have to have information quickly, don’t wax prophetic. Use the right tools to help you get to the point and improve your results.
If you’d like to learn more about ways to whack wordiness and tune up your written communication skills, contact me. Or sign up for my Word Trippers Tips and have helpful tips delivered straight to your inbox.
More words don’t always translate into more meaning.
You’ve heard me say this before…
It’s important to avoid excessive wordiness in your writing, especially when you’re in a business setting. Your colleague’s, reader’s, or customer’s time is precious. They need to know what you need, what you offer, or what you’re suggesting quickly and concisely.
If you find yourself rambling, it might be due to a lack of focus in your message, and that needs to be addressed. If you are unclear about “why” you’re writing, the “what” and “how” you’re writing will give it away.
We’ve all been hardwired to write essays that meet a certain word count – e.g., 1000 words on the merits of a new book, 600 words about the meaning of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms – but it isn’t necessary for everyday business or nonfiction writing. So, how do you chisel the point of your message?
Chisel the point!
Do you want to have precision and clarity in your writing? Then take time to do this simple exercise:
Sum up the point of your communication in one sentence.
After you’ve done that, you can take a step back and decide what supporting information you absolutely need to share to get your point across.
This might mean referring to research or someone else’s communications.
Then after you’ve finished making your case, run through this checklist:
- Did I put any unnecessary facts in the message?
- Did I add any phrases that weren’t relevant to the point?
- Did I consider what my reader was expecting from my message?
- Did I give any thought to making my sentences flow?
- Did I get straight to the point or take too many detours?
That last point – avoiding the detours – is an important one. You need to resist the urge to use “filler words” that come across as fluff. This includes dodging phrases like:
- It goes without saying…
- The fact of the matter is…
- In other words…
- Further to my point…
- To be honest with you…
Get with the formula…
If you’re writing fiction, you would definitely steer clear of following a formula. But when it comes to writing clear, concise business communication, you’ll be doing yourself – and your reader – a favor if you follow these simple guidelines to whack wordiness.
Use no more than:
- 5 paragraphs per page.
- 5 sentences per paragraph.
- 15 words per sentence.
- 3 syllables per word.
It might seem like an onerous task to edit your own writing, but the minutes it will take to shave your message, reduce wordiness, and share only the salient points will win you points with your readers.
This might feel clunky and time-consuming at first, but hang in there. Like any new routine – diet, exercise, sleep – you’ll get into a rhythm, and it will become second nature to you.
Take a practice run.
Not sure you can follow these guidelines? Take a practice run at reducing the wordiness in your emails and letters. Pull up something you sent last week…something that was important but hasn’t been addressed by your reader yet. Then run it through this filter:
- Count the number of paragraphs. Fewer than 5?
- Count the number of sentences in a paragraph. Fewer than 5?
- Count the number of words in a paragraph. Fewer than 15?
- Now circle the words that contain 4 syllables or more, such as dis·pro·por·tion·ate·ly.
How did you do? Be honest! Did you identify areas where you could have taken a shortcut and saved your reader time?
If you follow these four steps, you’ll gain clues about where your rambling takes you. Detours dilute your message and can affect how you’re perceived by your audience.
If you’d like to learn more about the ways you can trim the fat from your writing, contact me, or sign up for my Word Trippers Tips program and get tips delivered right to your inbox every week for a year.
Did you find this article helpful? Here are three more to help you communicate with credibility, clarity, and efficiency:
This article was originally published in 2010, but has been updated in June 2020. Feel free to comment below.
By Barbara McNichol
Now more than ever, clarity in communication is important.
We’re all adapting to more virtual meetings and a great deal more email communication. Documents that were discussed around a meeting table and then edited by a single person now make their way to multiple colleagues via email.
We’ve become accustomed to common abbreviations in text messages, such as, “C U @ 8pm @ Rogers, bring appie.” It gets the point across that your friend will show up at Roger’s house at 8:00 pm and you’ll bring an appetizer.
But what about in business interactions? Are correct spelling and grammar still relevant? I’d argue that they most certainly are…and I offer advice for professionals seeking clarity and credibility in their communication.
Here are four common grammar and spelling mistakes that undermine your credibility.
Let me be clear: we’re not going for Shakespeare. But don’t discount the possibility that your peer, manager, or potential employer has a solid grounding in the rules of English grammar and spelling. When you break those rules, you lose (not loose) credibility.
Let’s take a look at four of the most common mistakes. I call them Word Trippers…
1. Who and That.
Who refers to a person. That refers to an object.
“The person that sent you the proposal is an authority on the subject.”
“The person who sent you the proposal is an authority on the subject.”
“That proposal is worth considering. The person who wrote it is an authority on the subject.”
2. Me, myself and I.
I’ll grant you, this one is counter-intuitive. People often use “self” in a sentence, I suspect because they think it sounds more academic and authoritative. It’s “padding” in a sentence, which rarely adds meaning. So you’ll read phrases like this…
“Please contact myself if you have any questions.”
“Please contact me if you have any questions.”
“Myself and Jim will be there at 4:00 pm to discuss the proposal with yourself in person.”
“Jim and I will be there at 4:00 pm to discuss your proposal.”
Yourself is your self…no one can contact yourself. It’s a reflexive pronoun. You can talk to yourself. But nobody else can talk to yourself; he or she can only talk to you.
Consider these examples:
“Jim and me attended the meeting yesterday and it was very informative.”
“Myself and Jim attended the meeting yesterday and it was very informative.”
“Jim and I attended the meeting yesterday.”
Here’s a great way to avoid tripping on this: Test your grammar by removing the second person from the sentence. For example, say this awkward – and grammatically incorrect – sentence:
“Me went to the meeting yesterday.”
And so is this:
“Myself went to the meeting yesterday.”
3. Further or farther?
Have you ever wondered about the difference between further and farther? There’s constant debate around this – and since English is a living language, it’s ever-evolving. However, most experts agreed that further is figurative and farther is literal, referring to a measurable distance.
“Jan has traveled further than anyone else in the company to meet with clients.”
“Jan has traveled farther than anyone else in the company to meet with clients.”
“Farther to the point Jan was making about excess travel for sales meetings, I’d like to send you this report regarding our fleet mileage costs.”
“Further to the point Jan was making about excess travel for sales meetings, I’d like to send you this report regarding our fleet mileage costs.”
4. Apostrophes: the ultimate tripper.
Of all the grammar glitches I see, this is the most common. Misusing this punctuation mark rarely creates confusion in meaning, but it’s a glaring error for people who know the proper usage.
“Its likely we’ll miss our fourth-quarter revenue projections.”
“It’s likely we’ll miss our fourth-quarter revenue projections.”
“Since our sales teams travel expenses have been so high, we’ll take a loss on our fourth-quarter revenue.”
“Since our sales team’s travel expenses have been so high, we’ll take a loss on our fourth-quarter revenue.”
An apostrophe plays two roles in the English language. It signals an abbreviation – “it’s” instead of “it is” – and possession – “the sales team’s travel expenses.”
Pay attention to these common missteps in written communication. There are many others.
Don’t get let poor grammar and spelling prevent you from showing clients and colleagues you’re knowledgeable about your product or service. Contact me for more information.
Did these tips help you? Are you interested in improving your writing? I am offering a $29 discount on my Word Trippers program until the end of May.
Enjoyed this article? Here are three more to help you communicate effectively:
One of my favorite resources, Dictionary.com, gives us a host of word meanings that have been essential (or at least useful) during this coronavirus period. Words matter; that’s why we should dig into their accurate meanings.
This link opens a meaningful door to terms we’re hearing every day.
When you go there, you’ll also see a number of relevant “word trippers” such as “epidemic” vs. “pandemic”; “respirator” vs. “ventilater”; “quarantine” vs. “isolation.”
Take a few moments to study word meanings that matter the most these days!
In The Elements of Style, iconic authors William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White called word clutter “the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood out of words.”
Yes, the same E.B. White who gave us beloved children’s stories like Stuart Little, The Trumpet of the Swan and Charlotte’s Web also gave us that visceral description…
What is word clutter? Word clutter refers to unnecessary words in a sentence. Why – and how – do you eliminate them? If Strunk and White’s metaphor doesn’t make a believer out of you, then read on, because voiding word clutter in your writing will help you become a better, more effective communicator.
To clutter or not to clutter – that is the question.
When writing poetry, descriptive words are acceptable – even expected – because you’re trying to paint a picture with words. The art is in the rhyme, the imagery, the emotions you want to invoke in your audience.
But in business communication, it’s imperative that you trim the excess fat. Your readers are busy like you – they don’t need to wade through extra words to get the meaning of your message.
No one in business wants to think of themselves as a “cog in the wheel,” but Strunk Jr. summed up the importance of brevity beautifully:
A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.
Your business is like a piece of machinery, and efficiency matters. So, do your reader a favor: tune up your writing and whack out the extra phrases.
“Word clutter” refers to unnecessary words that don’t add meaning to a sentence. When you’re writing a non-fiction book or an email, whack them out. This often means choosing an active, rather than the passive verb.
Take time to fine-tune your message by whacking these phrases:
- “is intended to” or “is meant to” or “is designed to”
Example: “He gives a workshop that is designed to teach writing skills.”
Fine-tune it: “He gives a workshop that teaches writing skills.”
- “it is all about” or “the fact of the matter is” or “it’s important to remember that”
Example: “It’s important to remember that it’s unwise to drive during a blizzard.”
Fine-tune it: “It’s unwise to drive during a blizzard.”
- “is going to”
Example: “She is going to be a key contributor.”
Fine-tune it: “She will be a key contributor.”
- “In order to…”
Example: “Add keywords in order to describe the new position.”
Fine-tune it: “Add keywords to describe the new position.”
- “there is” or “there will be”
Example: “There will be several managers attending the meeting.”
Fine-tune it: “Several managers will attend the meeting.”
- “The reason why is that”
Example: “The meeting has been moved to the 2nd-floor conference room. The reason why is that we need more seating capacity.”
Fine-tune it: “The meeting was moved to the 2nd-floor conference room because we need more seating capacity.”
- “at this time”
Example: “We’re not accepting any more registrations for the conference at this time.”
Fine-tune it: We’re not accepting registrations for the conference now.”
Never forget: more words don’t necessarily give more meaning, especially in business communication. Your time is valuable. Show respect to your colleagues by trimming your emails, memos and reports – whack wordiness! You’ll be doing your colleagues a favor.
Now, do yourself a favor: get a red pen and take time to read over a recent email or letter you wrote. Ask, “Did I really need that word/phrase?” Circle all the unnecessary words. Then think about the time you could have saved yourself and your reader if you’d left them out! A little investment in time at the beginning of your writing project will save you and your readers time in the long run.
Do you have any “pet peeves” when it comes to word clutter? I’d love to know about them. If you’d like more helpful tips, you can sign up for Word Trippers Tips or book a WordShop for your whole team to strengthen your business writing skills.
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This article was originally published on March 26th, 2015, and has since been updated.
By Lynne Franklin (reprinted with permission)
Kathy was my first assistant when I was working at a public relations agency in my twenties. I made a point of writing thank-you notes to her when she finished something for me.
Walking through the office one day, I heard Kathy talking to another assistant. She said, “Lynne writes me thank-you notes for everything. That makes them all kind of meaningless.”
I was shocked! I thought I was being a good supervisor … Not knowing what to do, I never discussed this with Kathy and just wrote fewer of them.
What’s the Difference?
Praise is defined as “the expression of warm approval or admiration.” It comes from the Latin pretium, meaning “reward, prize, value, worth.”
Gratitude is “the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.” Its root is the Latin gratus, for “pleasing, agreeable, thankful, grace.”
If this seems like so much hair splitting, here’s the sense I make of it. Praise recognizes something a person has done. Gratitude is about the meaning of what they do and who they are to you.
With that in mind, I can see how my notes fell short for Kathy. They didn’t show approval or admiration of her work. Nor did they show appreciation or a wish to be kind back. She was right: my scribbles were a meaningless pleasantry that made me feel good.
Our Brains on Gratitude
Here’s the great thing. Gratitude is a gift to the giver and receiver.
It stimulates both brains to produce the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine, which make us feel good and boosts our moods. It also reduces fear and anxiety by lowering the amount of stress hormones in our systems.
When we practice gratitude every day, this rewires our brains. We strengthen these neural pathways, making us more grateful and positive by default. (This affects the people around us, because moods are contagious.)
Then we all get the documented benefits of gratitude:
- Being happier—having more positive emotions and thoughts, becoming more aware and awake, feeling greater satisfaction with ourselves, enhancing our mood
- Being healthier—building a stronger immune system, having fewer aches and pains, having optimum blood pressure and heart function, experiencing better sleeping and waking cycles
- Being better versions of ourselves—improving our communication with others, having more empathy, having stronger relationships, being more likeable, being a more involved team member
Don’t make my mistake of sending thoughtless thank yous. Whether giving praise or gratitude, be specific:
- Praise—“You did a great job of leading that meeting, Kathy. You kept things moving. We got a lot done—on time! And now everyone knows what to do next.”
- Gratitude—”You’re an inspiring leader, Kathy. This meeting is a great example. Not only did you get everything covered in an hour, but you made sure we all felt involved in the solution and know what to do next. I’m so happy to be part of your team because we’re making a difference!”
Look for opportunities to express gratitude. It could be a comment—face-to-face or phone/Zoom/Skype. It could be a note—which has even more impact when you deliver it in person, or even read it out loud to the recipient first. It could even be thinking about someone and thanking that person in your head. And don’t forget to regularly send yourself a note or thought of gratitude.
Make gratitude a practice. Some people keep gratitude journals, where they write what happened this day or week that they’re grateful for. Or they have a “gratitude partner” whom they regularly discuss this. Whatever path you choose, focus on how these instances made you feel.
In the middle of your over-busy day, take time to notice and express appreciation. Consider it the emotional equivalent of the boost you get from coffee or chocolate—without the calories!
Lynne Franklin is a communications expert who can increase your persuasiveness in three ways:
- Speeches, workshops and coaching that give you tools you can use right away
- Strategies that help you turn difficult business communications into opportunities to succeed
- Written and spoken communications created to reach your corporate and marketing communication goals
Get more people to do what you want. Let Lynne show you how. Call 847-729-5716
Your English teacher begged, cajoled, implored, beseeched you to use them in your writing.
And when you’re writing poetry or prose, playing with the English language is wonderful.
That’s when active verbs come into play. Using them is critically important in book writing and daily business communication.
What do you mean by active – versus passive – verbs?
Here’s a quick summary.
- Declare who or what is (or should be) performing the action you’re suggesting.
- Help your reader “get to the point” more quickly.
- Tend to eliminate extra words.
How can you identify passive verbs? Think, “To be, or not to be; that is the question.”
It’s a seminal phrase in Shakespeare’s prose and has its place in literature, but any use of the verb “to be” in business communication is passive and doesn’t inspire action.
So here are two examples of passive versus active verbs in a sentence:
Passive: The juicy watermelon was eaten by the boy.
Active: The boy chomped into the watermelon’s juicy belly.
Passive: Employees are seen by their managers as responsive and enthusiastic.
Active: Managers see their employees as responsive and enthusiastic.
When you want to place emphasis on the object of the sentence, passive verbs help.
In these examples, do you see how the passive verb puts emphasis on the watermelon and the employees while the active verbs place the emphasis on the boy and the managers?
It changes the perspective for the reader. And as the writer, you have to ask what you want them to care about?
Own the problem.
In stripped-down terms, not owning the problem is called “passing the buck.”
Passive verbs can be used to hide the person – or people – responsible for a mistake or lack of action. Worse yet, they can be used to validate inaction. For example, when you sign a lease, you’ll likely see a clause along these lines:
“The rules for the homeowners will be enforced.”
Rules by whom?
Or you might have received a message like this during your workday:
“Mistakes were being made that resulted in a failure to comply with regulations.”
Mistakes by whom?
Do you see how the ambiguity of the passive verb lays a foundation for poor business relationships?
What active sentence structure works?
A general pattern for a sentence employs an active verb rather than a passive one. It’s typically “subject + verb + direct object.”
Here’s an example:
“The landlord (subject) will implement (verb) the new safety protocol (object) to ensure renter safety.”
This sentence makes it clear that the landlord is responsible for the actions detailed in the contract.
Now it’s your turn.
Passive: “This policy is being implemented in an effort to streamline our process.”
I look forward to hearing from you!
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by Barbara McNichol
When polishing your sentences, pay attention to the nuances of word order. Yes, it matters!
Here’s a simple example from a recent book I edited:
“He was well respected and loved in the academic community.”
I changed it to:
“He was loved and well respected in the academic community.”
Because “loved” is 5 letters and “well respected” is 13, it makes for a smoother read if the longer phrase follows the shorter word. See if you agree.
“Good leaders don’t waste time, effort, financial resources, or opportunities.”
“Good leaders don’t waste time, effort, opportunities, or financial resources.” This shift creates a tidy parade of words from short to long.
Word Order in Lists
In addition, a list is visually easier to follow when the line length goes from short to long. This example is from a leadership newsletter:
It would be counterproductive if you:
- Take the time to plan your day, but you don’t follow the plan.
- Hire people to do a job but don’t take time training them to do that job.
- Have slow-moving products in your inventory that generate low margins.
- Conduct an employee engagement survey and do nothing with the results.
- Attend a trade show to network with customers but spend your time on the phone.
To get a feel for how adjectives line up best in a sentence, this blog post summarizes it beautifully: http://barbaramcnichol.com/2017/11/02/order-place-adjectives-sentence-explained/
For even more tips, go to http://barbaramcnichol.com/2016/03/06/5-writing-tips-to-improve-your-readability/
Key message: Better writing means paying attention to the best use of word order!