Copy tips 003: Don’t be vague about who’s doing what

Much – far too much – has been written by business and marketing types about the passive. Most of it, unfortunately, is not accurate.

 Copy tips 003: Don’t be vague about who’s doing what

Recently I read a blog post advising people to avoid ‘Click here’ in calls to actions because it’s ‘passive voice’. And a tone of voice briefing I attended recently warned members of a brand team not to write passively – only, the ‘Active’ text they chose to illustrate the point included more passive clauses than the ‘Passive’ version.

Many of us struggle to get the grammar of the passive, which is quite fiddly if you’re not used to that sort of thing. If you want to get technical, you can read an explanation of how the passive is formed here but for our purposes, let’s look at what people mean when they say that writing is ‘too passive’ – and see how we can turn this into some useful guidance.

Although sentences like ‘Mistakes have occurred’ and ‘There appears to be an error in your account’ and ‘A system anomaly has arisen’ are not grammatically speaking in the passive voice, people tend to respond negatively to them for what might be called, to use a non-technical term, their ‘passive language’. In all these sentences we detect a certain vagueness about agency. It’s not clear who’s doing the action – no one’s taking ownership for what happens.

The passive voice can allow us to hide the author of an action – ‘5,000 people were slaughtered’, to use a form known as the short passive, where the doer of the verb is only implied. This is why the passive has got a bad name – people see it as a weaselly, dishonest part of speech that’s great for when you want to get out of admitting that you did something bad. The active voice, however, can be used in exactly the same way. Sentences like ‘I was economic with the actualite’ and ‘The Sioux disappeared from the Wild West’ (no mention of who made them disappear) are similarly vague about agency. In fact, the active voice can be guilty of all the vices we accuse the passive of – for more on this, hunt for the post called The Virtues of the Passive Voice on this blog

In his excellent booking on technical writing, Style: Toward clarity and grace Joseph Williams dispenses a very helpful way of making sure that our sentences feel like they have authors. He proposes seeing each sentence as a story, with characters (subjects and objects) who carry out actions (verbs). To tell the most compelling story, the trick is to make sure that you identify the real characters and surface the key actions they’re carrying out.

‘Readers are likely to feel they are reading clear, direct text,’ Williams writes, ‘when (a) the subjects of the sentences name the cast of characters, and (b) the verbs that go with those subjects name the crucial actions those characters are part of.’

Take a sentence like: ‘Warning: system maintenance may mean extended call waiting times.’ The real characters here are ‘we’, ‘our system’ and ‘you’. The real actions are the maintaining work and the waiting, and the implied action of answering calls. So following Williams’ formula (and tweaking the tone of voice a bit), we end up with something more like: ‘Sorry, you may have to wait longer for us to answer your call just now, as we’re doing some vital maintenance work’.

More ways to avoid passive language:

  • Use personal pronouns as much as possible – especially ‘you’ and ‘we’
  • Cut back on impersonal constructions like ‘It appears that’
  • Use straightforward, cat-sat-on-the-mat syntax
  • Try not to tell more than 1 story in each sentence
  • Avoid weak verbs that don’t add any information about the story, like ‘may mean’ in the system maintenance example above

There’s a great deal more to say about the passive and the myriad ways it’s misunderstood. For more on the passive, check out linguistics blog Language Log which has posted more than 100 times on the subject.