Active vs. Passive Voice: Examples in Business Writing

A couple weeks ago, we explored how to use passive and active voice in business writing. If you’ve read that post, you hopefully have a good handle on the basic definition and difference between active voice and passive voice sentences. Now, let’s get a little more in-depth and take a look at some business copywriting examples to see active and passive voice in practice.

When to use active voice

Active voice, like the name obviously suggests, is active. It’s immediate, engaging and energetic. This makes it the best choice for most types of writing, particularly anything designed to promote a product, service, event or business.

Take a look at the following flyer examples for a fictional animal shelter. One’s written entirely in active voice, the other in passive voice.

Active and Passive Voice Examples in a Promotional Flyer

Even with a quick glance, you can see that one flyer clearly uses more words than the other. Space is a hot commodity in print collateral, and every word counts. In addition to making sentences more immediate and easy to understand, active voice helps to conserve sentence length.

Let’s pull an example sentence from both versions of the flyer:

Active Voice: Over 100 friendly and healthy animals are hoping for a new home.

Passive Voice: A new home is the dream of over 100 friendly animals at Pretend Animal Shelter.

Passive voice has a tendency to sound convoluted and pretentious. In this case, the passive voice sentence is a lot more awkward to read. Someone less familiar with the English language might need to read it multiple times before they fully understood it.

Also, notice that the active voice sentence leads with the subject that is of most interest to the reader. The “100 friendly and healthy animals” are bound to be more appealing than “a new home” (assuming, of course, that the flyer is targeted towards humans and not dogs).

Overall, active voice just has a much better flow. It keeps you reading, while passive voice is more ponderous and takes more effort to trudge through. This makes active voice the better choice for any marketing collateral designed to engage and excite the reader.

When to use passive voice

Passive voice is more detached and impersonal than active. This makes it fall flat when it comes to most promotional writing, but it does have its uses. In particular, it’s very appropriate when creating rules, regulations or legal writing for a business.

Here’s another pair of examples; two lists of company regulations written in active and passive voice.

Company X
Rules and Regulations
Active Voice Example: Passive Voice Example:
1. You must not be under the influence or in possession of drugs or alcohol during paid work hours. 1. Employees are not permitted to be under the influence or in possession of drugs or alcohol during paid work hours.
2. Do not use company property for personal use. 2. Using company property for personal use is prohibited.
3. You may not solicit or promote support for any cause or organization (including political parties) during paid work hours. 3. Soliciting or promoting support for any cause or organization (including political parties) during paid work hours is not permitted.
4. Do not make personal calls (except for emergency calls) during work hours. 4. Personal calls (except for emergency calls) are not to be made during work hours.

Again, the passive voice list is clearly a bit longer in terms of number of words, but take a closer look. The active voice version is straightforward, almost to the point of being blunt. It sounds a little accusatory: “You must not be under the influence.” After reading both examples, which company do you think you’d feel more comfortable working at?

Even though both lists are grammatically correct, simply changing the way that the sentences are structured completely changes the tone. The downside to active voice is that it can sound confrontational. Using words like “you” is a great way to engage someone when you’re providing them with a benefit, but it’s another case entirely when you’re telling them what they can’t do.

Use passive voice in any situation where you want to sound like an objective third party. Examples could include a scientific report, a company handbook or a contract.

Conclusion

These examples demonstrate the fact the active and passive voice lend themselves best to specific types of business writing. Use the voice most appropriate for your print collateral, and you’re more likely to achieve the tone you’re looking for.

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Active vs. Passive Voice: Examples in Business Writing

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Posted in Copywriting

One Response to “Active vs. Passive Voice: Examples in Business Writing”

  • Greg says:

    Passive writing can cause problems when writing contracts. A primary point of a contract is to clearly identify who is doing what, and active voice does this better than passive. Typically, mandatory duties (for government agencies) are written like this: Agency shall: or Contractor shall: In a solicitation such as a Request for Proposals, the background statement and the project overview can certainly be written in a friendly, accessible tone.


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