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"Mistakes Were Made": Choosing Active Over Passive Voice

Greg Kirsch

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In explaining the “Bridgegate” scandal, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is the latest in a stream of politicians using the phrase “mistakes were made.” The tradition dates all the way back to Ulysses S. Grant. It seems politicians can’t help themselves from uttering this non-apology apology. Speechwriter William Safire described the phrase as “a passive-evasive way of acknowledging error while distancing the speaker from responsibility for it.”   

Part of the reason the phrase seems so mealy-mouthed is that it is, indeed, in the passive voice. Instead of “I made a mistake” or “Bob made a mistake,” the phrase leaves the actor unnamed. For this reason, it feels weak and leaves us unsatisfied. 

The same principle holds for our marketing communications. To give copy pep and engage the audience, we avoid the passive voice whenever possible. Instead, we use the active voice. Simply put, in the active voice, the subject of the sentence is the actor; in the passive voice, the subject is the thing acted upon. 

Here are some copy examples, taken from actual pharma ads (I’ve changed the names to protect the guilty), that were written in the passive voice — and my suggested revisions to make them active.


Often legal or regulatory departments require we write in the passive voice. Sometimes when the “actor” isn’t important but the technical or medical process is, we use the passive voice. But many times, this is not the case. And when not … we ACTIVATE!

 

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