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Use active voice

Active voice makes it clear who is supposed to do what. It eliminates ambiguity about responsibilities. Not “It must be done,” but “You must do it.” Passive voice obscures who is responsible for what and is one of the biggest problems with government writing. Don’t confuse passive voice with past tense.

In an active sentence, the person or agency that’s acting is the subject of the sentence. In a passive sentence, the person or item that is acted upon is the subject of the sentence. Passive sentences often do not identify who is performing the action.

Passive voice Active voice
The lake was polluted by the company. The company polluted the lake.
New regulations were proposed. We proposed new regulations.
The following information must be included in the application for it to be considered complete. You must include the following information in your application.
Bonds will be withheld in cases of non-compliance with all permits and conditions. We will withhold your bond if you don’t comply with all permit terms and conditions.
The permit must be approved by the agency’s state office. Our state office must approve your permit.

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

Identifying passive sentences

Passive sentences have two basic features, although both may not appear in every passive sentence.

  • A form of the verb “to be,” such as “are,” “was,” “were,” “could be,” or “have been”)
  • A past participle (generally with “-ed” on the end)

Use passive voice when the law is the actor

In a few instances, passive voice may be appropriate. For example, when one action follows another as a matter of law, and there is no actor (besides the law itself) for the second action, a passive sentence may be the best method of expression.

You might also use passive when it doesn’t matter who is doing an action. For example:

“If you do not pay the royalty on your mineral production, your lease will be terminated.”

Sources

  • Charrow, Veda R., Erhardt, Myra K. and Charrow, Robert P., Clear & Effective Legal Writing, 4th edition, 2007, Aspen Publishers, New York, NY, pp. 173-175.
  • Garner, Bryan A., A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage, 2nd edition, 1995, Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York, pp. 643-644.
  • Garner, Bryan A., Legal Writing in Plain English, 2001, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp. 24-26.
  • Garner, Bryan A., Garner's Modern American Usage, 2003, Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York, pp. 892-893.
  • Murawski, Thomas A., Writing Readable Regulations, 1999, Carolina Academic Press Durham, NC, pp. 73-75.
  • Office of the Federal Register, Document Drafting Handbook, 1998, p. MMR-5.
  • Redish, Janice C., How to Write Regulations and Other Legal Documents in Clear English, 1991, American Institutes for Research, Washington, DC, p. 26.
  • Securities and Exchange Commission, Plain English Handbook, 1998, Washington, DC, pp. 19–20.