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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Business Writing Tip: I Hear Voices

March 8 has been approved as an official holiday for National Proofreading Day by Chase’s Calendar of Events. This holiday was founded by Judy Beaver. The National Proofreading Day Web site has been updated with a monthly proofreading survey. (Please click here to take the proofreading survey!) What do the first three sentences have in common besides shameless promotion? They’re written in passive voice.

Do you know the difference between active and passive voice? According to William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well, “The difference between an active-verb style and a passive-verb style—in clarity and vigor—is the difference between life and death for a writer.” He’s right; the first three sentences are boring! And, active voice is easier to understand than passive voice because the reader knows who’s doing what. Active-voice sentences are written in subject-verb order.

Use active voice to keep your writing strong and concise for business. However, if you write in passive voice, revise the passive-voice sentence by changing to subject-verb order. Ask: who did what to help identify the subject. Sometimes you know the subject; it follows the word by. Otherwise, you may have to add a subject. So, what’s the subject in the first sentence of this newsletter? (Who did what?) Chase’s Calendar of Events. Here’s the sentence written in active voice: Chase’s Calendar of Events approved March 8 as the official holiday for National Proofreading Day. Still boring? Perhaps, although it’s active voice!

Microsoft Word can identify your passive-voice verbs so you can improve your writing. Then, you can decide if you want to change the sentence to active voice. To be sure Word places the green zigzag line under passive-voice sentences, follow these steps:
  1. Click the Office button.
  2. Click the Word Options button.
  3. Click the Proofing link (left side).
  4. Click the Settings button.
  5. Scroll down to Style category (under the Grammar and style options list); select Passive sentences to place a check in its check box.
  6. Click OK two times.
Even though active voice is the preferred writing style, you can use passive voice for certain situations. Use it to place emphasis on someone other than the subject (Laura was honored vs. We honored Laura) or to avoid placing blame on someone (The program couldn’t be installed vs. Joe couldn’t install the program). See the difference?

Judy Beaver, The Office Pro
Founder of National Proofreading Day