Passive Voice: Who Is Doing What to Whom?

Posted on February 22, 2015

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Russell Bither-Terry reflects on his experience working at the UNC-Chapel Hill Writing Center to bring you tips for clear, concise writing. Whether you are an MPA student or a city manager, Russell’s tips can help you in your everyday writing. 

Passive Voice: Who Is Doing What to Whom?

lastby: Russell Bither-Terry – LinkedIn and Twitter

As if lifeless, wordy prose weren’t enough, passive voice can be really great for weaseling out of assigning responsibility. In government writing this can undermine transparency and accountability.
Let’s take a look at an imaginary public statement from a Parks and Recreation department. I’m clearly exaggerating, but doing so to make a point:cat

A series of complaints have been received about a recent park remodel. The situation has been thoroughly investigated and mistakes were made during said remodel. Changes have been implemented to prevent a recurrence of this problem and the individuals responsible were disciplined.

This kind of writing makes it seem like things just happen on their own.
Maybe the reader will be able to decipher the message and fill in the blanks because everybody has been talking about the slide that collapsed with three toddlers on it. Or maybe the reader will have no idea what the statement is really about.
1A useful question to pose when trying to improve such prose is Who is doing what to whom?
Remember from the passive voice video that sometimes we don’t know or it isn’t important who completed an action, but often it is. And when it’s important (and when it’s public information), we should make it clear to the reader.
Here’s an attempt at a quick re-write of the passive voice inflicted statement above:

A group of residents recently submitted complaints about unsafe playground equipment installed in the recent remodel of Birchwood Park. Parks and Recreation investigated these complaints and found that they resulted from staff purchasing low quality equipment on eBay. Management has suspended the staff responsible for two weeks without pay and enacted procedures to verify the safety of playground equipment prior to purchase.

Last time I said that active voice tends to be more concise. In this case the active voice statement is 62 words where the passive voice statement is 42 words. But the active voice version actually tells the reader what happened. In other words, it’s longer because it contains more information.

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