In most situations, active voice is a better choice so writing software flags the use of passive voice.
Yes, passive sentences have several drawbacks, but are technically grammatically correct. You may also decide passive voice is better than active voice in some situations regardless of what your software says!
So, let’s first discuss the negatives of passive voice. Then we’ll define passive and active voices before determining when passive voice may be the best option in a situation.
Passive voice may leave you wondering who is responsible.
Passive sentences may leave the actor – or responsible party – out of the sentence entirely, which can be a little dangerous in government auditing. To correct any issues, our public officials must be held accountable.
Here is an example of a passive sentence:
Reviews of cost reports were not performed.
Oh no! We don’t know who is supposed to perform the reviews!
We could tack the actor to the end of the sentence, but it’s still passive:
Reviews of cost reports were not performed by the program manager.
Switching to active voice places the actor in front:
The program manager did not perform reviews of cost reports.
Now that might have struck you as a little too direct. Hold that thought!
Passive voice is also wordier.
There is a law in Montana requiring schools to disclose student performance data.
Montana law requires schools to disclose student performance data.
The active voice sentence is only nine words long. The passive sentence is 13 words long.
How does your computer know?
Your computer software knows when you’re writing in passive voice due to a “killer be.” Not a literal killer bee!
A “killer ‘be” – as in a form of the word ‘be’ – such as:
Notice the passive sentences used above contain the “killer be” but the active sentences do not:
Passive: Reviews of cost reports were not performed by the program manager.
Active: The program manager did not perform reviews of cost reports.
Passive: There is a law in Montana requiring schools to disclose student performance data.
Active: Montana law requires schools to disclose student performance data.
When passive voice may be the best option.
Writing may be choppy when the actor always shows up at the beginning of a sentence. Occasionally using passive voice creates sentence variation for a better read.
Perhaps you don’t want to call out the actor and leave them unnamed, so people need to guess who is responsible. Maybe everyone reading your audit report already knows the actor and directly naming them could appear as harsh and rude.
There’s a chance you don’t even know who the actor is. Adding a vague descriptor of the actor is unnecessary.
The car was stolen.
This is a passive sentence due to lack of an actor. Since we don’t know who stole the car, using active voice isn’t the better option:
A criminal stole the car.
In summary, use passive voice judiciously.
Even though your software complains, it might be best to not name the actor and write in passive voice. Be careful not to always use passive voice when leaving the actor silent or moving them to the end of the sentence. You could end up with bureaucratic, lengthy sentences not holding anyone accountable and, ultimately, that’s not a good thing.
Interested in learning more about this topic?
Check out the How to Write an Audit Report Finding – Video Course.