Writing responsibly — with an active voice

Just ran across a recent blog post from writing expert/instructor L Michelle Baker, PhD on active vs. passive sentence construction.

Like most versatile, creative writers, she advocates using both the active and the passive voice, depending on what you need to make the information clear, and the cadence and rhythm engaging.  But she also suggests that passive sentences can be a deliberate way to evade responsibility. 

We’ve all seen it in the corporate-speak memos from HR where such phrases as, “Employees are now expected to,” or “The new policy is designed to …”  No one really wants to identify the bad guy here — which is, obviously, “we, the company management”.

Or as Ms. Baker puts it in her post: “When the passive becomes problematic it is because the agent disappears in some way that feels uncomfortable to the reader.” She offers two example sentences derived from the many “beasts” she had a hand in creating as an accountant during the dot.com bubble. (That was before she went to graduate school to study English.) To wit:

–Contracts with key employees have not been signed.

–Cash is hemorrhaging at an alarming rate.

Commenting on the above, she explains how writers use passive sentence structures to side step responsibility:

“The first of those sentences is indeed in the passive voice. The agent of the action – whoever should have been signing those contracts – is not in the sentence. And the reason is obvious. Why didn’t we say “we”? Well because then someone would have to take responsibility for this omission …”

“But the second sentence – that’s written in the present progressive. The agent of that action is cash. Still, the sentence is elusive, because someone is allowing that to happen, and that someone has not been named.”

Baker’s conclusion: “… there are all kinds of ways to evade responsibility. The passive voice is just one of them.”  So, she says, “Let’s keep all of what we write responsible. We do that by using the active voice … and by keeping subjects and verbs close together. When we know the agent of the action, and when that agent matters, name it. Employ the active or the passive in a way that lends rhythm, passion, and purpose to your language.”

Thanks L. Michelle.  I couldn’t have said it better!

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