Denver Bar Association
June 2004
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Clean Up Your Brain-Use Active Voice

by Floy Herta Jeffares

With this article, I aim to change an annoying habit of the public in general and the legal profession in particular. I wish to stamp out and forever eliminate the persistent, pestiferous use of the passive voice. Active voice is so much better. Read on to find out why.

Here are some examples of passive voice (offensive language in italics):

JUDGE: Is there a signed contract?

LITIGANT: -Yes, but I have never seen it. It was supposed to be mailed to me.

OR

JUDGE: Then what happened?

LITIGANT: I was asked to bring her back.

In these examples, like with all other passive voice assaults, the reader or listener now knows as much about who did the supposing, the mailing or the asking as he or she did before reading or listening to the statement.

Sure, passive voice has its advantages, mostly for the one who uses it. It is easy to craft, requires no analytical effort, and creates the illusion—both in the minds of the perpetrator as well as the receiver of a passive voice statement—that the communication contains something of substance. No need to be so picky; we all know what we mean. Right? Passive voice allows us to simply and easily run our mouths, pens or keyboards without risking an investment of too much thought or precision.

Furthermore, sometimes we, especially when acting as lawyers, have valid and deliberate reasons not to disclose who did the doing, but we still need to say that a particular action happened. In that case, and that case alone, I agree that we may avail ourselves of passive voice AS AN EXCEPTION to the rule.

Now let me show you the much more tangible and real benefits of active voice usage. Deliberately ditching passive voice and employing exclusively active voice forces the speaker and writer to think before uttering a statement. The user of active voice must clean up her brain before dumping a wasteland of useless communication on the outside world. The speaker and writer must, before speaking or writing, determine who performed the act that the speaker or writer is about to describe with a verb. For if the speaker or writer does not know who did the supposing, the mailing or the asking before communicating these acts, then the speaker or writer had better figure it out before speaking or writing. And if she or he cannot figure it out, then why bother communicating about it?

As an added bonus, the hearers or readers of active voice statements will sigh internal and unconscious sighs of relief. There is no longer a need to figure out what the communication said, while all along suffering from the illusion that a meaningful communication occurred. Just try it out: Your daily communication will become so much clearer, cleaner and correcter with the use of active voice. Notice the difference:

JUDGE: Is there a signed contract?

LITIGANT: -Yes, but I have never seen it. The Defendant [had a duty to/committed to/agreed to/stated that she would] mail it to me.

OR

JUDGE: Then what happened?

LITIGANT: The Defendant asked me to bring her back.


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