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Exceptions to the passive voice rule: The rule says "don't use passive voice!" But —are there exceptions??

Most people still think this sentence looks like clear, innocent and helpful:

    Safety instructions must be given.

But as a passive-voice construction, it confuses the reader and makes our agency look weak because it doesn't answer the reader's two primary questions:

    Who gives the instructions?
    Who gets the instructions?

Remember, passive voice is different than past tense. For more information, please read "If you can't identify a passive voice construction, you might be dangerous." Generally, documents should use active voice whenever possible. However, there's a few times when passive voice is the right choice:

  1. When passive voice doesn't matter:

    A headline "The president was elected" is in passive voice. But there's no need to kill that passive voice so it reads "The people elected the president," because it doesn't matter----everyone understands that passive voice.

  2. When we don't have all the data yet:

    Many of our offices get initial data in one month and then final data at a later time. During that period, we can't use active voice constructions to say "you will do this and we will do that," because we don't have all the data yet and can't be so direct with the reader.

  3. When we want to soften the tone of our words:

    Let's say 100 people apply for a job and 99 of them get rejected. Pronouns and active voice are the two most important things to use if you want to write in plain language. But if you do that, your letters of rejection to 99 desperate people will say "We didn't pick you for the job." That's great plain language but shows no compassion. It's far better indeed to use passive voice to say "A number of qualified applicants could not be selected for this competitive position."

SUMMARY: The pathway to confusion is paved with passive-voice constructions and no pronouns. Whenever possible, always use active, not passive voices constructions. However, there are a few rare exceptions when a passive voice is the right choice.

For questions or comments, or if your staff need free, custom training to put your policies, technical reports, correspondence or other documents into plain language, please contact:

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

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