Writing Technical Post: The Danger of Passive Sentences

If you’ve read any books or articles on writing, at some point you’ve read or heard an instructor say that you should avoid using passive sentences. For those who don’t obsess about these things and who may have forgotten what a passive sentence is, here are two examples, one of an active sentence and one that is passive:

“Ringo played the drums.” (Active sentence)

“The drums were played by Ringo.” (Passive sentence)

In sentence number two, the phrase “were played” is a passive verb. It makes the drums the subject of the sentence, when really, the reader wants to know about Ringo. After all, he’s the one who makes the drums come to life. Too many passive sentences can make a piece sound wooden, stiff, and unexciting.

And sometimes, they can cause significant problems.

Imagine that someone has written a will, and in that will he has left a large sum of money to a non-profit group that supports a local museum or school or orchestra or some other cultural entity. Suppose the will states that the funds “should be used to supplement the services already available.” This sentence is a problem. Why? Because it does not say who will use the funds to supplement services. Is it the non-profit group that has received the funds, or is it the cultural entity that benefits from the group’s support? As you might expect, one’s interpretation will vary depending on whether one is a member of the support group or a member of the entity. The group is apt to disagree with the entity.

When the amount of money involved is small, this is an annoyance. When the amount is large, it can create hard feelings as both sides try to assert control over the money.

Whether you are a novelist trying to scare people with a ghost story, a newspaper columnist describing the latest presidential candidate debate, the author of a textbook, or a lawyer writing a will, improperly used passive sentences can: 1) make your novel or column boring; 2) make your textbook even more boring; 3) start a conflict. When the sum of money is in the hundreds of thousands or millions, that conflict could end up in a courtroom. All because the writing was unclear.

Like any other part of language, passive sentences have their place and legitimate uses. However, writers should take care not to overuse them, and they should give careful consideration to meaning when they decide to use them. We write to communicate — a message, a story, a joke, driving directions, or instructions. If we’re going to take the trouble to write something, shouldn’t we do it in a way that leaves no doubt as to what we mean?

It’s not communication if the receiver doesn’t understand what you said.

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