When Should Passive Voice Be Used In Business Writing?
Business writing leans heavily on the active voice because it is shorter, clearer, and easier to understand. Business writing prioritizes clarity over sophistication, and the active voice in business writing helps achieve this. However, passive voice has its place in effective business writing. Let’s explore below.
Active and passive voice review
Before we answer the question, “when should the passive voice be used in business writing?”, we need to review what the active and passive voices are. Here’s my favorite example:
Active voice sentence: The mouse ate the cheese.
This single sentence is in the active voice. The subject, the mouse, is doing the action, so it is the agent. The object, the cheese, is receiving the action.
We can switch the subject and object in active sentences to create a passive sentence.
Passive voice sentence: The cheese was eaten by the mouse.
This sentence is in the passive voice. The subject, the cheese, is receiving the action. The object, the mouse, is doing the action, so the object is the agent here. Notice also that the verb has an extra “BE” in it; in this case, it is past tense, so “was” is the extra “BE”, and that’s followed by the past participle of the verb (in this case, eaten). This link has a complete list of active verb and passive verb tenses.
Just looking at the two sample sentences you'll see that passive voice is longer, has a more complicated verb structure, and is, therefore, denser and less direct.
Generally, always aim for active voice in your business writing. However, there are specific situations when using the passive voice in business writing makes more sense not just grammatically, but also stylistically.
When should the passive voice be used in business writing?
There are five distinct reasons for using the passive voice:
- To emphasize the result of an action or if the agent (person doing the action) is unknown or not important.
This is super common in scientific or technical writing, the news, or historical accounts. Here are some passive sentence examples:
The colosseum was built in 70AD. (We don’t really know who built it, so the focus is on the result of the action - that it was built.)
The COVID-19 vaccines were developed on a faster timeline than any previous vaccines. (In this case, there were so many people and entities working on this that it wouldn’t make sense to list them all as the subject. Again, the result — that we have a vaccine — is more important than the person/people who did the action.
This would make sense in any business situation where it doesn’t matter WHO did something, but rather that it was done. Since proposals focus on the reader and not the company making the proposal, passive voice would be the preferable choice.
- To describe a process.
As you can imagine, this is commonly used in scientific and technical writing. Here is an example:
The data in this report was collected over a period of seven months, from June 2020 to January 2021. Once collected, it was analyzed for relevant patterns and condensed into three key silos. These silos will be used to inform our strategic strategy for 2022.
This use of the passive voice makes sense in reports and particularly executive summaries. Again, the focus is on the process and not the people/person doing the process.
- To use an impersonal or indirect tone, which suggests formality, impartiality, or objectivity.
This is likely going to be the reason for passive voice in formal documents or announcements. For example:
Lisa Geigen’s retirement will be celebrated on December 10, 2021.
Entering the building without a security pass is prohibited.
In the first example, the use of the passive voice makes the announcement sound more official. In the second example, the passive voice makes the prohibition sound more objective, formal, and impartial, thereby making it sound stronger.
- To avoid placing blame.
As you can guess, this is the reason the passive voice is sometimes used in insurance or banking. Here’s a good example of this:
A mistake has been made in your account. It has been corrected as of June 13, 2021 and will show up on your next statement.
In the example above, the use of the passive voice avoids mentioning WHO made the mistake. This avoids placing blame on the company and instead focuses the reader on the fact that the mistake has been corrected. This approach can be used effectively in negative messages but use caution dodging blame with this approach. Typically, apologizing directly is better.
- To avoid using a general subject.
General subjects are grammatically and stylistically weak even if they seem warranted by the topic. General subjects include people, you, they, we, everyone, someone, and anyone. Here are some examples:
Instead of the active voice…
Use the passive voice.
People must wear masks in the engine room.
Masks are required in the engine room.
We have cut prices on all products.
The price has been cut on all products.
Someone should inform new employees of the policy.
New employees should be informed of the policy.
When NOT to use the passive voice in business writing
The situations described above are specific and not blanket statements. For example, you cannot sprinkle the passive voice throughout your document in order to make it sound more formal or objective. If a long sentence seems clunky and awkward in the active voice, try rewriting it as two shorter sentences before defaulting to the passive voice. For example:
The Tigers, whose new strategy of marketing and sales seems to be working, beat out the Lions.
This sentence structure is in the active voice, but it is awkward because the subject (The Tigers) is separated from the main verb (beat out) due to a modifying phrase.
You could fix this by making the sentence passive:
The Lions were beat out by the Tigers, whose new strategy of marketing and sales seems to be working.
But it would be better to simply write this as two active sentences:
The Tigers beat out the Lions. Their new strategy of marketing and sales seems to be working!
Two shorter sentences are clearer, more direct, and less likely to lose readers.
In summary …
The answer to “when should the passive voice be used in business writing?” can be boiled down to the following:
Use passive voice as the preferable choice when it makes sense to focus on the action or result of an action and when the agent of the action is unimportant or unnecessary to mention. Do NOT use the passive voice to add formality, objectivity, or sophistication outside of this purpose; it will confuse and alienate your readers.
Instructional Solutions courses, including our cornerstone Business Writing Techniques course, cover active and passive in business writing as well as many other grammatical and stylistic topics to help you become a more effective and efficient business writer.
Related: Our Guide to Business Writing