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Using Active Voice in Business Letters

By: Beth Morrisey MLIS - Updated: 9 Dec 2012 | comments*Discuss
Active Voice Passive Voice Voice Subject

Active and passive voice are writing issues that confuse many people. Understanding active voice is important for recognising the advantage of using active voice in business letters, as well as understanding the instances in which active voice should be avoided.Knowing the difference between voices and when to employ each is imperative for writing the most effective business letters.

Understanding Active and Passive Voice

In sentences using active voice the subject of the sentence does the action described by the verb. This means that the subject does what the verb says. For example, in the sentence "Mary wrote the document" the subject of the sentence is Mary and the verb is to write/wrote. Because the subject of the sentence (Mary) did the action (wrote), the sentence is in the active voice.

The opposite of active voice is passive voice. In sentences using passive voice the subject of the sentence receives the action described by the verb. Usually this occurs when the verb to be is written in the past participle form, and the sentence then often contains the word "by" as well. For example, in the sentence "Mark was delayed by Steven" the subject of the sentence is Mark, but the action (to delay/delayed) is done by Steven so Mark, the subject, is only receiving the action.

Advantages of Using Active Voice

Active voice is advantageous in written communications because it is a direct, concise and engaging manner of writing. Readers know who is acting at all times and don't need to wade through extra words to understand what is happening in any given sentence.

In business letters active voice becomes an important method of re-iterating all that an individual or company is doing for a customer or client. Active voice allows individuals or companies to claim the spotlight. For example, the sentences:

"Sandra is working overtime to make sure that all of the packages are sent before the deadline"
"Fabulous Frozen Foods is delighted to announce the winners of the Holiday Hamper Contest"

Let readers know exactly who should be praised for something (Sandra and Fabulous Frozen Foods), which is a good strategy for keeping an individual or organisation at the forefront of customers' and clients' minds.

Active voice also tends to use fewer words than passive voice making it a good choice for letters with a strict word count or page limit.

Avoiding Active Voice In Business Letters

Active voice is not always the most appropriate choice for business letters. Business letters which:
  • Must communicate bad news
  • Are unable to name a specific actor in a given situation
  • Prefer to emphasise what is done rather than who is doing it
May all chose passive voice.

For example
A company would probably much prefer to write

"If payment is not received by 1 May then the account will be frozen"

rather than

"We, Fabulous Frozen Foods, will freeze your account if payment is not received by 1 May".

The subtle distinction may help customers or client see the action as inevitable rather than as a choice made by a particular company. Similarly:

"The decision was taken to make 300 workers redundant"

is usually seen as preferable to:

"Matthew Jones, President of Fabulous Frozen Foods, took the decision to make 300 workers redundant".

Finally, when it is legitimately not known who has done something then the passive voice can communicate this without making it obvious or raising any further questions. Stating "the disappearance of six laptop computers is being investigated" communicates that the laptops went missing and the situation is being investigated without having to disclose that no more is known.

Understanding active and passive voice is important for recognising which is the best choice for any given business letter. The advantages of active voice make it a stronger method of communication in many instances, but there are also situations in which passive voice is a better option.

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