What’s Worse Than Passive Voice

The terms “active” and “passive” can be confusing. They describe not only the syntax but also how they feel. We call a sentence passive if it feels flat, regardless of whether its verb is in the passive or active voice.

The success of the project depends on cost control

The project will succeed if we can control costs.

The first example certainly feels less active than the second, even though it has no passive verbs (in the grammatical sense of passive voice). Why? For two reasons. First, because it’s missing an important character – we. And second, neither of its actions – success and control – are verbs. They are both examples of what we call “nominalization.”

“Nominalization” is a technical term for a kind of noun that we create out of a verb. So, for example, the verb succeed becomes the noun success. And the active word expect gets flattened down to lame expectation.

Used carelessly, these nouns can turn any sentence boring, passive, and flat. Once you nominalize the verb, you drain the active life of a sentence. Worse, you disappear the character who does that action. For example:

We expected that we would recruit the staff quickly.

Our expectation was that our recruitment of the staff would be quick.

Our The expectation was for our quick recruitment of the staff.

Guys, listen. If you’re too aloof, you’ll often combine passive verbs with nominalizations. And it will sound awful. Instead of writing clearly:

We investigated why the employment office interviewed so few minority applicants. 

You’ll write:

We conducted an investigation into why the employment office did so few interviews of minority applicants.

Or even worse:

An investigation was conducted into why so few interviews were done.

When business leaders combine nominalizations with passives, they create the kind of bureaucratic, inauthentic prose of those who confuse authority with remote impersonality and polysyllabic abstraction.

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