The Passive Voice: Out of exile

The poor maligned passive voice.

Your English teachers scorned it.  The venerable Strunk and White (Elements of Style) advise against it.  The live-in grammar checker in Microsoft Word doesn’t approve of it.

But in practice, the passive voice* does have its place.

To sweeten bitter pills

If you need to bring up some unpleasant facts in your copy, like in that legalese at the bottom of the page, use the limp and foggy passive voice to soften the edges. Here’s a passive phrase that works just fine:

A deposit is required.

This sounds less crass than “We require a deposit,” or “You must pay a deposit.”  In the passive voice it sounds as if it’s really no one’s fault.  It’s just policy.

Or how about this:

Licensing fees are based on the number of installed machines.

This passive construction takes the blame off US.  It’s not that WE insist on charging you for every darn machine.  The fees simply work that way. And it doesn’t even sound like YOU have to pay these fees.  (Although you most certainly do.)

How about his innocuous statement of fact:

Penalties are applied only in months when the committed billing amount is not reached.

This is a double hide-behind.  In the passive voice, we avoid responsibility for assessing these nasty penalties.  (They’re just applied somehow; it’s not our fault.)  And it’s ONLY in certain months.  And thanks to the passive voice, it’s not YOUR fault, either; the committed amount simply isn’t reached for some unlucky reason.  Who knows why?  We have transformed a stinging nettle in the contract into “one of those things.”

To make sentences face the right way

The passive voice can also help you shift the spotlight off yourself and back onto the customer where it belongs.

With ABC Systems, your core software will be upgraded by automated downloads whenever updates are released.


With an XCompany network, all your connections will be monitored 24 hours a day, 365 days a year — and each device will be polled every thirty minutes.

Yes, that’s passive talk. The Microsoft Word grammar checker will call you on it. And you might be tempted to rewrite these passages into more active prose.  (ABC upgrades your software automatically. . . XCompany monitors all connections 24 hours a day. . .) But notice that the passive voice is more customer-oriented here. Instead of talking about what WE do, the phrase talks about customer and what SHE gets.  It’s better mannered, I think.

In any event, the passive voice should be used sparingly.

Make that:

Use the passive voice sparingly.


* Just for reference, the passive voice is the verb construction that sounds like this.:

The operating system was installed on the primary server.

(As opposed to:  We installed the operating system on the primary server.)

Premises-based virtual networks are created when intelligent devices are incorporated onto the customer premises.

(As opposed to:  CDE Corp creates premises-based virtual networks by incorporating intelligent devices on the customer premises.)