Make your message clear with active voice

Active sentences specify who does what. Passive sentences only say that something must be done. Passive tends to sound apologetic and wishy washy. Worse, it can leave the reader wondering if he’s the one who must perform the action. For employee communications, this confusion can wreak havoc on performance. In customer letters, the uncertainty can stifle the reading process, or flood your customer service center with unwanted phone calls.

Here’s how you can make your communications easy to understand.

Use the grammar checker to highlight passive phrases.

Passive – active – whahh??  Okay, so you’re not a grammar geek. That’s okay. You can set up Microsoft Word to show passive phrases. Then you can spot them easily and turn them around to active.

Here’s how to set it up. You only have to do this once. It will continue to highlight passive phrases until you change it back.

For Microsoft Word 2010:

  1. Go to File/Options/Proofing.
  2. Scroll down to “When correcting spelling and grammar in Word.”
  3. Click the Settings button next to “Writing Style.”
  4. Scroll down to “Style” and click the Passive sentences radio button.

For earlier versions of Microsoft Word:

1.Go to Tools/Options/Settings.

2.Look under “Style” and check Passive sentences.

If you don’t have software that includes an automatic grammar checker, you can eyeball your manuscript to spot passive phrases.  Just look for any form of “be” (“be,” “being,” “been”) or if something “was” done. These are often an indicator of a passive sentence.

Examples of passive vs. active

Underlines in the first paragraph show where Microsoft Word indicated a passive phrase.

Simple example:

Passive: The red button must be pressed each day at four o’clock.

Imagine all your employees doing something completely different at exactly four o’clock because none of them knew it was his or her job to push the red button.

Active: The machine shop supervisor must press the red button each day at four o’clock.

A simple fix! Active sentences provide a subject so readers know exactly who must perform the action.

Real-life example:

Passive: Recently we submitted a charge to your credit card for your annual fee and it was rejected. It is likely the charge was not honored because the credit card information in our records is incorrect or no longer valid. Updated credit card information must be sent in order for it to be reprocessed. If there is no new credit card information, payment may be mailed for the amount shown below in order to keep your account active. A return address envelope has been included for your convenience.

Active: Your credit card company has rejected our attempt to process your annual fee payment. If your credit card has expired, please call us at XXX-XXX-XXXX to provide updated information so we can reprocess the payment. Or, you can send us a check in the enclosed envelope for the amount shown below.

Turn your sentences around

You can see how rewriting passive sentences into active makes it clear who must perform, or has performed, the action. Active sentences not only improves your readability statistics, it also improves your readers’ comprehension.

Jeanette Juryea is President of QubComm, your Corporate Communications department in the virtual Qubicle next door. Send an email to for professional writing, editing and design services from award-winning writers. You can also ask about writer training, brand/style guide development, existing communications analysis and more.