To begin with, let’s look at what a sentence is. Webster’s tells us that a sentence is “a combination of words, which is complete as expressing a thought…” A sentence starts with a capital letter, and most often ends with a period (.), although it could end with an exclamation point (!) or a question mark (?). Various types of sentences are usually categorized in one of two ways: structure, or function.
Structure-wise, there are three types of sentences: Active, Passive, and Descriptive.
An Active sentence is a sentence in which someone or something does something, e.g.,
John throws the ball.
A Passive sentence is a sentence in which someone or something is being done to, e.g.,
The ball was thrown.
A Descriptive sentence is one that uses a form of “to be,” such as: is, are, was, were, will be, and so on, and may be used in combination with words like “seems,” or “feels,” e.g.,
The ball is green.
The ball seems to be green.
So what about passive sentences? Well, for one thing, they are harder to read. Harder to comprehend, and almost always longer. In the above examples, you will need six words in the passive sentence to provide the same information the reader gets from the active sentence. The four-word active sentence above (“John throws the ball.”) becomes a six-word passive sentence (“The ball was thrown by John.”)
If you are writing to be more concise, more clearly understood at a glance – use active sentences.
Strategically: A piece loaded with passive sentences will certainly discourage readership and can lead to misunderstanding – or no understanding. Can often lead to a generally bad feeling about you or your organization, perhaps even, at the extreme, to the point of mistrust. Think about some of the least-trusted sectors of our society. Take a look at how they communicate with their various publics. Although many organizations now discourage over-use of passive sentences, you will likely still see a lot of passive sentences in these written materials.
So, are passive sentences lethal in your writing? Depends on what you are trying to accomplish. Readership, or non-readership.
Occasional passive sentences are not deadly. Active sentences communicate.
Gail Tycer offers business writing workshops and presentations; executive coaching, consulting, writing, and editing services. Call Gail at 503/318-7412, or email firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more.
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