chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.

Probate & Property

May/Jun 2023

The Last Word: Did Your Client Do It? Or Was It Done by Your Client?

Mark R Parthemer

Summary

  • Active is the preferred voice used when speaking and writing.
  • There's room for the passive voice, especially in some areas of the practice of law and other nonfiction writings.
  • Be intentional, you are free to buck the conventional teaching that active should (almost) always be used.
The Last Word: Did Your Client Do It? Or Was It Done by Your Client?
RichVintage via Getty Images

Jump to:

Verbs are the most important of all your tools. They push the sentence forward and give it momentum. Active verbs push hard; passive verbs tug fitfully. —William Zinsser, On Writing Well

Benefits of Active Voice

Active is the preferred voice used when speaking and writing. For example: “My client (subject) avoided (verb) taxes.” In contrast, in a passive sentence, the subject does not perform the action of the verb; in fact, the action of the verb is done to the subject: “Taxes (subject) were avoided (verb) by my client.”

Although it’s typically simple to identify whether a statement or sentence is active or passive, there is also a common hint. The sentence may be passive if it contains a phrase beginning with the word “by.” Try re-writing the sentence and moving the subject buried in the “by” phrase closer to the beginning, and the contrast should be clear.

The active voice draws the reader or listener into the narrative. In addition, there are at least four benefits of using active voice:

  1. Emotion—evokes a stronger reaction
  2. Pithy—sentences and statements are less wordy
  3. Clarity—meaning is not obscured
  4. Immediacy—pace is improved

In contrast, passive voice:

  1. Distance—creates separation between the reader/listener and the narrative
  2. Awkward—sentences are wordier and can become clumsy
  3. Confusing—especially for those with a limited vocabulary
  4. Nonurgent—conveys in a sterile fashion

According to plainlanguage.gov, “More than any other writing technique, using active voice and specifying who is performing an action will change the character of your writing.”

Benefits of Passive Voice

There’s room for the passive voice, especially in some areas of the practice of law and other nonfiction writings. Whether to use passive voice depends on the message being conveyed, particularly when the emphasis is on the receiver of an action rather than the doer. Here are five reasons to use passive voice.

1. Minimizes Blame. Because the passive voice doesn’t emphasize the person responsible for the action, the action itself becomes more important in the reader’s mind. When using the passive voice, we often leave out the subject altogether. For example: Bad advice was given. At this stage, it’s not important to the reader who was responsible for giving the bad advice but that it was given.

2. Creates a Sense of Anonymity. Passive voice can be useful when the doer of the action (the actor) is unknown, unimportant, or obvious. To that end, the passive voice allows the actor to be omitted. It creates not just anonymity but also a sense of mystery. Bad advice was given. By whom? In what way?

3. Fosters Objectivity and Tact. Because the passive voice creates a sense of emotional distance between the reader and the narrative, the tone can be viewed as neutral or objective. This is the main reason why scientific reports are often written in a passive voice. Though most coaches of journalism writing encourage active writing, especially in broadcast, there are often legal reasons that underpin the choice of passive voice. For example: The bad advice was given by the taxpayer’s tax attorney. A court hasn’t yet proven that a specific attorney is culpable, or the attorney hasn’t yet claimed responsibility. Further, in some cases, it’s less relevant who gave the bad advice than the fact that the client relied on bad advice. X of ABC law firm gave the bad advice. After all, when the sentence is read in the active voice, you might feel incited to take action!

4. Emphasis at the Beginning of the Sentence. The use of passive voice allows the writer to start a sentence with the intended focus. Twenty-five people were defrauded by the tax attorney. This allows attention to be drawn to the number of people.

5. Imbues Authority. If the active voice sounds more conversational, the passive voice sounds more formal. Readers tend to perceive this formality as more professional and authoritative. It sounds like the author knows what he is talking about.

Be Intentional

You are free to buck the conventional teaching that active should (almost) always be used. The choice is tied to your objective, who your readers are, what experience you want to create for them, and the impression you want to leave with them when they’re done. Don’t be afraid to consider mixing the voices. Using active at the opening of a paragraph can set the right tone, with the passive voice used to provide proper explanatory emphasis by the writer.

    Author