It was blown by you

I recently saw this line in a human resources handbook: “A training session on employee harrassment is required to be attended by all staff.” Leaving aside the fact that the company is training its employees to harass each other, this is a nice example of misuse of the passive voice.

As the term suggests, “passive voice” means that something was done to something else. The road was crossed by the chicken. Short people are discriminated against. I am being screwed. Most of us grew to love this construction in high school, when we were too lazy or nervous to commit to precise statements. “It is argued that Mark Twain was the most revolutionary writer of his day” keeps things nice and vague—it’s not even clear if the writer agrees.

Unfortunately, laziness and fear of commitment don’t serve us well in the business world. I can think of only two instances where passive voice is appropriate: to emphasize an object  (The baby was left on the doorstep) or to wiggle out of taking the blame (Errors were numerous in the last newsletter).

3 Replies to “It was blown by you”

  1. I can think of a third possible use: to bring home the obvious. “The argument was well demonstrated.” Use with care. Nice work, Deborah.

  2. I think the passive voice is entirely too squirrelly. I know the British feel otherwise and strongly. Maybe that speaks of our differences. Americans tend to be much more direct.

    The news media still use the passive voice heavily. “The president is expected to sign the bill.” Would it be so hard to say WHO expects the president to sign it? Even if it’s the reporter himself, it wouldn’t be bad at all to say, “I expect him to sign it.”

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