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If you can't identify a passive voice construction, you might be dangerous

Consider this sentence: Financial compensation will be provided.

Does it seem normal and clear to you? To most people including attorneys and executives, that sentence looks harmless and helpful. But because it's written as a passive-voice construction, it completely confuses the reader, reduces customer satisfaction and makes the writer look ineffective. Why? Because it doesn't answer the reader's two primary questions:

Do I get the money?
Who gives it to me?

Most passive-voice constructions have two parts:

  1. A form of the verb "to be" (such as "is, was, are, were, to be," etc.), followed by--
  2. Another verb that ends in either "-ed" or "-en"

In the original sentence, the passive voice part is "—be provided." Other examples of passive voice constructions might be "—are given," or "—were examined."

How do you fix most passive voice constructions? Easy. Use pronouns like "we" or "you." Pronouns kill passive voices. Instead of writing "financial compensation will be provided," use pronouns to say "we will pay you."

Let's apply this to a safety issue and consider this sentence:

"Safety instructions must be given."

If you don't know that the section "—be given" is a passive voice construction, then you'll confuse everyone and reduce safety because that sentence doesn't say who gives or who gets the instructions. If we use pronouns, the passive voice will disappear and the sentence could say "you must give safety instructions to your passengers."

Summary: Passive voice is not the same as past tense. Past tense is plain language, but passive voice constructions are not. Most of the time, passive-voice constructions and no pronouns are the pathway to confusion. Use pronouns to kill your passive voices. When you do, the world will be a better, safer place because your readers will understand your words.

If you've got comments or questions about this, please contact:

Dr. Bruce V. Corsino
FAA Plain Language Program Manager
Phone: 202-493-4074

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