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.
by Barbara McNichol
Do you know when to use the words as, since, and because?
As with most grammar rules, people writing for business purposes might see the differences as an exercise in hair-splitting. However, each word conveys a slightly different meaning.
If you agree that clarity in communication is essential, and that poor grammar can affect your reputation among peers and superiors, you understand how strong writing makes a good impression.
Master the proper use of these three conjunctions, and you’ll make yourself understood—and trusted.
What are conjunctions, and what is their role in a sentence?
As, because, and since are all conjunctions that introduce a subordinate clause. They provide the reason for the action in the main clause.
Sandy has to approve all vacation time because Roger left the human resources department.
Monday will be a paid holiday since Remembrance Day falls on a Tuesday this year.
All vacation inquiries will have to be done in person, as Sandy hasn’t updated the online calendar yet.
In all these examples, the subordinate clause provides the reason for the action in question. In addition, it is dependent on the main clause, meaning it has no meaning without it! The main clause, on the other hand, can stand on its own without the subordinate clause.
Using as vs since vs because: not splitting hairs.
If you want the information to resonate with your readers, choosing the correct conjunction is key.
- Where do I want the emphasis?
- Do I want the reader to focus on the reason or the result?
If you want to emphasize the result, use since or as.
- I hope Sandy attends the meeting [result], as I’m eager to hear her organizational plans for the human resources department [reason].
- Good human resources managers are hard to keep [result] since the job comes with so much pressure [reason].
In both of these examples, the result is at the forefront.
However, when you want your readers to pay close attention to the reason, use because.
- Because the human resources department is lacking consistent leadership employee turnover has been a challenge.
- Did you leave the engineering department because you were frustrated by the lack of resources?
- It’s important to seal all the hatches when you leave the maintenance room because the filters in the air purifiers have to be kept under pressure.
The causes – or reasons – are clear in these sentences, and draw the reader’s attention.
Using because eliminates the ambiguity in a sentence, as well. Consider using since vs because in this scenario:
- I understand the new vacation policy much better because I read the employee manual.
- I understand the new vacation policy much better since I read the employee manual.
In the first sentence, the reader understands that you gained a better understanding of the policy as a result of reading the manual.
What about in the second sentence? When did you gain a better understanding? Some time after reading the manual? Or due to information you found in the manual? Your reader may be able to infer the meaning, but it’s best not to make them guess.
There’s never a bad time for good writing.
Persuasive writing should be crisp and direct. When you’re in a business setting your readers are busy and their time is precious. Don’t waste any of it using ambiguous words or clunky grammar.
Your readers might not be grammar experts, but poor spelling and syntax are a distraction from your message. That comes down to paying attention when faced with word choices like as vs since vs because.
You can access a variety of resources. You can even sign up for my Word Trippers Tips and get grammar tips delivered to your inbox every week.
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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.
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 Barbara McNichol
Have you crossed that line? There are some common phrases to avoid if you don’t want to come across as arrogant or condescending.
It’s important that you temper your language when writing. You don’t have the benefit of voice intonation, hand gestures, emotions…all the things that impact a face-to-face encounter with your audience.
If you give off the wrong signals in person, you have an immediate opportunity to correct your misstep.
That can’t be said of your writing. Once you’ve pressed “Send”, mailed the letter, circulated the memo or published the book, your opportunity to explain your intent has passed.
You don’t want to set a tone that can be misconstrued if you’re not there to explain what you meant.
There are several phrases you can avoid – they pad your writing with extra words but don’t add any meaning to your message.
Here are 12 phrases to avoid that will save you from sounding pompous:
- Not to mention… Okay, then don’t mention it.
- It goes without saying… Right, then don’t say it.
- If I may say so… Well, since you’re the author, of course, you can say so.
- I believe that… Now the reader wonders if your message is based in facts.
- In my humble opinion… An automatic signal that you’re not feeling humble.
- To tell the truth… Implies you’ve lied to your reader in the past.
- To be honest with you… Again, a suggestion that you’ve been dishonest.
- For the record… If you’re not under oath you don’t need this qualifier.
- Let me be perfectly clear… Usually followed by complete bafflegab.
- This may sound stupid but… Check yourself, the rest of that sentence probably sounds stupid.
- With all due respect… The prelude to an insult, no respect implied or taken.
- In other words… The worst culprit. Just use the right words the first time.
Take these pompous-sounding “fillers” out of your writing to avoid confusion and gain clarity in your writing. This is particularly helpful in business communication, approach your reader assuming they’re pressed for time. They need information, not prose or poetry.
Are there other “filler phrases” that make writing sound pompous? Share them in the comments section below or send them along and I’ll add them to the list.
If you’d like help honing your writing skills, feel free to contact me.
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This article was originally published on September 22nd, 2016, and has been updated.
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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