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.
Did you know that bad grammar can ruin a good message?
You could be missing opportunities to get your point across because your readers have to wade through awkward sentences that set their teeth on edge.
Common grammar mistakes can be avoided if you take the time to learn the rules and then apply them. Pay special attention to the eight that follow.
The 8 most common grammar miscues
Here’s a list of the eight most common grammar mistakes and ways to spot and fix them.
1. Me versus I: subject pronoun (plural subjects)
“Me and Janet completed the quarterly sales report.”
“Janet and I completed the quarterly sales report.”
Rule: When the subject is more than one, you need a subject pronoun (I, she, he, we, they, who).
Clue: Say the sentence without ‘Janet’. “I finished the quarterly sales report.” Now it’s easy to tell which pronoun is correct, right?
2. Me versus I: object pronoun (verb)
“Katherine hired Dave and I to draft the sales proposal.”
“Katherine hired Dave and me to draft the sales proposal.” is correct.
Rule: “Dave and me” is the object of the verb “draft” and therefore requires an object pronoun (me, her, him, us, them, whom).
Clue: Say the sentence without Dave. “Katherine hired me to draft the sales proposal.” It’s obvious now, isn’t it?
3. Me versus I: object pronoun (preposition)
“Between you and I, we got the job done.”
“Between you and me, we got the job done.”
Rule: In this sentence, “me” is the object of the preposition “between” and therefore requires an object pronoun (me, her, him, us, them, whom).
Clue: “I” is the subject of a sentence and will be followed by a verb “ran, went, jumped, cried.” “Me” is the object of a sentence and is preceded by a preposition “with, to, between, before.”
“Irene, Lloyd and myself finished the blueprints.”
“Irene, Lloyd, and I finished the blueprints.”
Rule: You can’t use a “-self” pronoun (myself, yourself, himself, herself, themselves, ourselves) unless it refers to another noun or pronoun earlier in the sentence.
Clue: Look for the referral word that precedes the pronoun and say the sentence without “Irene, Lloyd.” “I finished the blueprints.”
How many times have you read this incorrect sentence?
“Please feel free to contact myself if you need further information.”
“Please feel free to contact me if you need further information.” is correct.
5. To versus too
“Roger was to swamped and couldn’t complete the report on time.”
“Roger was too swamped and couldn’t complete the report on time.”
This might seem like an obvious mistake. It happens most often when you’re in a hurry – but that’s no excuse. Your reader will notice the gaff.
6. Lay versus lie
“Nigel was feeling light-headed, so his manager suggested he lay down in the infirmary.” is incorrect.
“Nigel was feeling light-headed, so his manager suggested he lie down in the infirmary.” is correct.
Rule: You lie down on a bed and lay down an object.
Clue: To lay is to place something down in a resting position. A chicken lays eggs, it doesn’t lie eggs.
7. There versus their versus they’re
“It was there turn to present sales projections.”
“It was their turn to present sales projections.”
“Their looking forward to presenting this quarter’s sales projections.” is incorrect.
“They’re looking forward to presenting this quarter’s sales projections.” is correct.
Rule: There is a place, their is a possessive pronoun, they’re is a contraction of “they are.” This grammar gaff is rarely due to not knowing the difference; rather, it slips through spellcheck.
Clue: This common grammar mistake can easily be avoided by proofreading your communications carefully before pressing “send”.
8. They/their versus he/his or she/her
As you probably know, the convention for the use of “they” has changed. It is now acceptable to use “they” to identify an individual and allows for gender neutrality.
“They asked that their report be presented last” can refer to a single person.
Rule: In the appropriate context, “they/their” is a plural pronoun while he/his and she/her are singular. So, if you’re writing about someone who is previously identified as one male or female, “they” is no longer grammatically correct.
Clue: Are you referring to one person who identifies as either male or female? Or are you talking about a group of people or someone who wishes to remain gender-neutral? Attention to context is important with this grammar rule.
Why good grammar matters.
In the age of Twitter shorthand and texting shortcuts, good grammar and spelling are taking a beating. But according to experts in business communications, they’re still relevant.
If you take time to edit your writing – whether it’s an email to a peer or superior, a sales pitch to a potential client, or a summary of work you’ve completed – your message holds more weight when your grammar and spelling are accurate.
I always encourage my fellow writers to “make friends with good writing.”
Enjoyed this article? Here are three more to help you communicate effectively:
What grammar miscues trip you up? Please share them here.
by Barbara McNichol
When it comes to English grammar, disagreements show up in writing and editing all the time – and mainstream media has blurred the lines along the way.
I can hear you saying, “Fine, but why does it matter?”
Well, precision in language is important because an exception on one platform – a printed newspaper article or spoken news broadcast, for example – will have different repercussions than an exception in an academic paper, a technical manual, or a formal business document.
If you’re creating content on one platform that doesn’t adhere to basic English grammar rules and suddenly find yourself in a situation, at work or in university, where you’re expected to follow them to the letter you’ll be at a disadvantage.
By following the basic rules of English grammar at all times you will establish yourself as an authoritative, clear, and precise communicator. And there are some simple ways to stay on the right side of grammar rules, but first…
What does the media have to do with it?
As I mentioned, mainstream media has influenced English grammar.
The Associated Press (AP) Stylebook gave writers the green light to use one disagreement: the plural pronoun “they” as a singular noun. This change came about because of issues surrounding gender identity, and it’s a worthy endeavour to represent people more accurately.
AP’s solution to this shift is to substitute:
- He or she with “they”
- His or hers with “theirs”
- Him or her with “them”
The Stylebook suggests that writers use the person’s name wherever possible if they’ve asked to not be identified by gender. Further, when using the plural pronoun in place of the singular pronoun, to be sure the reader understands you’re talking about one person, not several.
In theory, this leaves less room for ambiguity on the reader’s part when he or she is taking meaning away from a news item.
Grammar experts are asking themselves…
Why is this necessary?
It’s a fair question.
Isn’t it more important to follow English grammar norms – especially when there are easy fixes?
Here are some common examples of noun/pronoun disagreement, and the simple solution:
- “We want the school board to do their job.”
Problem? It’s one school board, not several. Here are two potential fixes for this grammatical error:
“We want the school board to do its job.”
“We want the school board members to do their job.”
- “Your reader can peruse your book at their leisure.”
Problem? There’s only one reader, not several. Here are grammatically correct alternatives:
“Your readers can peruse your book at their leisure.”
“Your reader can peruse the book at his or her leisure.”
In order to keep agreements in place – to not switch between singular and plural – when dealing with gender identity, you can use these writing tips:
- Use the person’s name instead of a pronoun.
- If you don’t know the gender (or preference) of the person you’re citing, use “his or her”, “he or she” or even “s/he” – they’re all grammatically correct.
- Alternate between masculine and feminine pronouns – I edited a book for an author writing about raising a baby who did this seamlessly.
Just because it’s old…
You could argue that it’s not relevant to hang on to the “old” English grammar rules and it’s true that they have flexed and changed slightly over time. But it’s wise to hang onto those basic rules, and there are ways to adapt your message to current communication standards without abandoning the basics.
I’ve got a handy Pronoun Chart you can use if you’re in doubt – request one here.
Finally, I’d like to know what you think. Given our ever-changing language, would you side with the exceptions the AP Stylebook offers, or do you prefer to put accuracy above all in your writing?
Did you enjoy this article? Here are three more you might find useful:
By Kathleen Watson
Headlines provide never-ending examples of incorrect grammar, whether in word choice, word order or punctuation.
Reminder: I define grammar as the words we choose, how we string them together, and how we use punctuation to give them meaning.
News stories and their headlines should be examples of excellent writing. They also should conform to Standard English, defined as the way educated people write and speak. Writing in haste is no excuse for careless headline grammar errors.
1) How To Act When Someone Around You Loses Their Job
In 2017, the Associated Press proclaimed that nouns and pronouns no longer have to match in cases of gender sensitivity. I strongly oppose the change. In this headline, the indefinite pronoun someone is singular, but their is a plural possessive.
Rather than using the awkward someone loses his/her job, the headline could easily have conformed to standard usage if it had been phrased this way:
How To Act When Someone Around You Loses A Job
2) Look At Aaron Rogers Amazing House
Green Bay Packer quarterback Aaron Rogers no doubt earns enough money to have an amazing house, but this headline lacks the apostrophe that shows the house belongs to him. When a name ends in s, show possession by adding an apostrophe:
Look At Aaron Rogers’ Amazing House
3) Students Walkout Across Country to Support Florida School-Shooting Survivors
To walk out is a phrasal verb; a walkout is a noun.
An earlier post, One Word or Two: Use Care With Your Shortcuts, has a list of other word combinations called phrasal verbs — a verb and a preposition that, when joined, often form a noun: set up/setup | break down/breakdown | start up/startup | cut back/cutback … and more. The headline should read:
Students Walk Out Across Country to Support Florida School-Shooting Survivors
4) Parkland Survivor Criticizes Laura Ingraham For Only Apologizing After Advertisers Fled
As so often is the case, the modifier only is misplaced. When only precedes apologizing, it implies that apologizing was not enough. Should she have done more than apologize?
The criticism underlying the report was aimed at the timing of her apology. Some thought Ms. Ingraham should have apologized immediately, rather than waiting until some advertisers withdrew their support of her program. A clearer headline would have been:
Parkland Survivor Criticizes Laura Ingraham For Apologizing Only After Advertisers Fled
5) What Does It Feel Like to Be Wrong? Our strong need to be right and it’s impact on our lives
The first line works, but the subhead is punctuated to read:
Our strong need to be right and it is impact on our lives
People continue to confuse it’s, the contraction for it is, and its, the possessive form of the pronoun it. Here’s how the line should read:
Our strong need to be right and its impact on our lives
I hear from plenty of people who lament the apparent lack of grammar knowledge in some media representatives who are considered professional communicators: print, electronic, and television journalists and commentators.
We’re all judged by the way we write and speak. Don’t let careless grammar or lack of grammar mastery detract from your credibility.
Kathleen Watson has a love/hate relationship with grammar; she loves words and the punctuation that helps them make sense, yet she hates those pesky rules. Knowing others do, too, she wrote an easy-to-use grammar book called Grammar for People Who Hate Rules to help people write with authority and confidence.
Share examples of headline grammar errors you find.
by Barbara McNichol
Did you celebrate National Grammar Day on March 4th? I think it needs to be celebrated all year ’round especially when it comes to business writing.
Here’s why using proper grammar is important:
“Grammar is credibility. If you’re not taking care of the small things, people assume you’re not taking care of the big things.” — Amanda Sturgill, associate professor of communications at Elon University
What’s the best way to recognize Grammar Day? Spend extra effort to make sure your sentences, whether spoken or written, are grammatically correct.
How do you know what’s correct? Let me direct you to my colleague Kathleen Watson’s new reference book, Grammar For People Who Hate Rules: Killer Tips From The Ruthless Editor.
This week only, Kathleen is offering it in ebook form for only 99 cents, downloadable on Amazon. This special offer expires at midnight on March 8, so act now!
You can order the paperback version at any time. It’s available at:
This is one resource I use often and highly recommend!
by Kathleen Watson (used with permission)
What’s wrong with this headline:
How to Setup a Marketing Campaign
to Capture More Leads
If you recognized setup as incorrect (it should be set up), good for you! You have a better sense of grammar than the person who wrote the headline.
When a verb such as set is used with a preposition such as up, it is called a phrasal verb: set up. Combining a verb with an adverb also creates a phrasal verb: cut back.
But when the elements of the phrasal verb are combined and expressed as one word, they create a noun: set up / setup | cut back / cutback | break down / breakdown.
Each of the following examples has two sentences. The first uses a phrasal verb (two words), and the second uses a noun — a single word created by a verb and a preposition. (Exception: cut in No. 4 is followed by the adverb back.)
Please arrive early to set up the room.
Setup should be done by 3 o’clock.
Guests must check out before 11 a.m.
Checkout is 11 a.m.
We had to clean up the pavilion after the picnic.
Cleanup didn’t begin until late afternoon.
We’re going to have to get more exercise and cut back on desserts.
If you want to lose weight, calorie cutback should be part of your plan.
Businesses that start up with too little capital often fail.
The startup required SBA financing.
You can sign up for the seminar in room 208.
Seminar signup ended last week.
I back up my computer daily.
Do you use the cloud for computer backup?
Please break down the price by material, labor and profit.
What kind of price breakdown did she provide?
He’s going to fall out of favor with his boss if he misses more work.
He got fired — the fallout of missing too much work.
If you can stand by for a later flight, you’ll get a free fare.
If you have a flexible schedule, flying standby can save you money.
When you take a shortcut and combine words, take care not to cut short the accuracy of your message.
Share these free Killer Tips with a friend or colleague who is striving to become a better writer and speaker.
Kathleen Watson is known as the ruthless editor who has just published an excellent grammar book that clears up questions that have been festering. Grammar for People Who Hate Rules: Killer Tips from The Ruthless Editor.
You can also request a One-Word-or-Two handout by emailing Barbara at editor@BarbaraMcNichol.com with One-Word-or-Two in subject line.