Tamsin Constable

Burn passively in hell

So what on earth is the passive voice?

And why in hell should you avoid it?

Take this example.

Active voice: Lucifer lit the fire. The flames burned the screaming sinner to a cinder.

Passive voice: The fire was lit by Lucifer. The screaming sinner was burned to a cinder by the flames.

The important thing to notice here that in the passive version, the sentence would still have been correct without a subject.

The fire was lit. The screaming sinner was burned to a cinder.

In the passive version, Lucifer, in short, gets away with it. The passive voice offers a smokescreen for the ‘agent’ or ‘doer’ or ‘subject’ to avoid being held responsible for the event. The reader is left wondering who lit the fire, and what burned the sinner.

This means that it’s tempting to leave out the subject altogether, especially if you want to avoid responsibility for what you’re saying or deflect attention from the ‘doer’ or ‘agent’.

Children are required to eat their greens. (By whom?)

Sinners are condemned to burn in hell for eternity. (Who says?)

The active voice generally produces shorter sentences. It’s also punchier. So if you’re writing a Devil’s job of a long report, document or paper, use the active voice. It means that there’s less for your reader to wade through. And the wading is easier.

Ultimately, with the active voice, your reader is more likely to read (and to understand) what you’ve written.

The passive voice does, if used with care and understanding, have its place, particularly when it comes to writing up academic research. It’s big enough for a separate post, so I’ll do that soon.

So stick to the active voice whenever you can. It’ll make you think harder about what you want to say, particularly about ‘whodunit’. Your writing will become clearer and easier to read. And that can only be good news for your intended audience.

It should be good news for you, too. Unless, of course, you really have got something to hide.

A jargon-busted jargon buster

Hurray for the Financial Services Authority, whose ‘Everyday Money’ series of guides covers topics such as Buying a House, Saving and Investing, and If Things Go Wrong out in Plain English.

Most of these financial products and services guides seem to have been published in the past year. This suggests that the FSA recognises that the mis-selling of financial products that caused last year’s financial chaos was caused largely by a toxic combination of hard-sell and obfuscation. (Obfuscation? Now there’s a word that does what it says on the box!)

The tagline for the series is ‘No selling. No jargon. Just the facts.’ The purpose, the FSA says, is to help people “make an informed decision”.

The guides even include a section called ‘Jargon Buster’ at the end. Good grief, they’re so hot on Plain English that they’ve even jargon-busted the word ‘Glossary’.

Don’t dig too deep

Home insurance company Hiscox has realised that their policy of using Plain English can be turned into a massive selling point.

Here’s their latest ad offering, based on the phrase ‘call a spade a spade.’ Notice too their slogan: ‘As Good As Our Word’, which implies both a promise in terms of client relationships, as well as quality of service, reflected in the use of high quality Plain English.

On further investigation, though, there are two problems.

First, Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable defines the phrase ‘to call a spade a spade’ as: “To be outspoken, blunt, even to the point of rudeness.” Let’s hope that Hiscox’s potential customers don’t read that into the ad.

Second, though the phrase has an ancient Greek source, it has a very different modern slant, used in a racist way (as in black spades in poker). In America, in particular, this phrase is now considered offensive. Perhaps the Hiscox ad team didn’t dig deeply enough?