Passive voice sentences conceal who is acting and create creepy feelings in the reader. Fixing them reveals the truth and improves the tone of your writing. If you write advice or instructions of any kind, here’s your tutorial.
Look at this example I encountered last night at the Red Sox game, where the team wrote the rules for “Friendly” Fenway Park almost entirely in the unfriendly passive voice. In these excerpts, bold italic shows passive (bold shows sentences that are not grammatically passive, but still hide the actor). Notice how this barrage of passive sentences create a “Big Brother is watching you” vibe:
No bag or item larger than 16″x16″x8″ will be permitted inside the Park.
Umbrellas are allowed inside Fenway Park but may only be used during official rain delays.
Cameras and video cameras are permitted but cannot be used to reproduce the game and must not interfere with other fans’ enjoyment of the game.
Proper dress is required.
Any fan that directly or indirectly interferes with the enjoyment of the game will be promptly ejected from Fenway Park and may be subject to arrest and prosecution by the Boston Police. Fans are also reminded that anyone observed with offensive articles included signs, shirts, hats, etc. may be asked to remove/discard them. Failure to comply with such a request will result in immediate ejection from the park.
All fans are expected to comply with Fenway Park’s Code of Conduct.
Unless the Red Sox want to be NSA-like hidden watchers and enforcers, they should stop hiding behind this language. (They should also fix their starting pitching, which sucks this year, but that’s much harder.) When you restore the missing actors as subject of the sentences, you reveal that there are humans who enforce these rules. I highlight the new subjects:
Security staff won’t let you in the Park with a bag or item larger than 16″x16″x8″.
We‘ll promptly eject you if you directly or indirectly interfere with the enjoyment of the game. The Boston Police could also arrest and prosecute you. If our staff see you with offensive signs, shirts, hats, or similar articles, we will ask you to remove or discard them, and if you don’t we‘ll kick you out. [That’s why I didn’t wear my “Writing Without Bullshit” T-shirt.]
The Red Sox expect all fans to comply with Fenway Park’s Code of Conduct.
You can also rewrite instructions as imperatives. Now it becomes clear what fans should or should not do. With “you” and imperatives, the rules are no longer ominous:
While you can bring an umbrella, you can only use it during official rain delays.
If you bring a camera or video camera, don’t use it to reproduce the game and don’t interfere with other fans’ enjoyment of the game.
Dress properly. [I’ll leave my Carmen Miranda outfit at home, I guess.]
Lessons: You can spot passive voice in two ways: the subject of the sentence is not the actor, and the verbs include forms of to be (is/was/will be/has been) plus a past-tense verb. When you read passive sentences, ask who is acting and why the writer is concealing their identity. If you write any sort of advice, from strategy recommendations to how-to instructions, rewrite passive sentences: restore the subject, use “you” to speak directly to the reader, and use imperatives.
More detail is in the Google doc version of this text.
Feel free to submit your most egregious passive voice examples on the submit page.