Open Government at the National Archives

The Passive Voice and Zombies

This week's Plain Language writing tip comes from Zombie Defy-er Hilary Parkinson.

In honor of Halloween, this week's plain language tip is about the passive voice. And zombies.

Like mindless zombies thwarted by a chain-link fence, many writers struggle with the passive voice. There's something about official writing that suddenly makes writers suddenly unable to use pronouns.

After reading many examples of the passive voice (and occasionally falling victim to it), I've decided that we're all afraid.

Why does the active voice scare us so much that we use the passive voice instead?

  • We're afraid that external NARA communications need to sound official. And somehow, writing in the passive voice sounds official to us. ("Your request has been processed.")
  • We're afraid that customers will see us as people if we use the active voice. Passive voice creates a barrier and lets us hide from the reader. "Your request will be answered." Who will answer? No one knows! You're safe!
  • We're afraid that since we're in the habit of writing this way, it will be hard to change.
  • We're afraid that we'll stand out if we start to use the active voice.

But these are just fears. Our job is to help customers get what they need. By using the active voice, the writer communicates with the reader more clearly, quickly, and easily.

There's nothing to fear but fear itself, even when it comes to the passive voice or to zombies. What's the best weapon against fear? (I mean, besides going for the zombie's brain.) Laughter, of course!

So here's a handy tip to test your writing (by way of Ellen Fried on the ICN) and make you laugh. If you are afraid your sentence is in the passive voice, add the phrase "by zombies." If it still makes grammatical sense, it's in the passive voice.

Passive: The form was processed and returned (by zombies).
Active: We completed your request and mailed the form to you.

Passive: A new plain language directive was signed in the Archivist's office (by zombies).
Active: The Archivist signed the new plain language directive.

Passive: Twenty-seven boxes of files were filed in record time (by zombies).
Active: Staff filed 27 boxes in record time.

Passive: Researchers had their questions answered (by zombies) in a special session with Bill Mayer.
Active: Bill Mayer answered the researchers' questions in a special session.

Don't be afraid to eradicate the mindless ghoul of passive voice from your writing. After all, if you are reading this sentence, you must have . . . brains! brains . . . brains . .

Happy Halloween!


Do you have any examples to add to this list? If so, please share them with us! Email plainwriting@nara.gov

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