Potency of grammatical voice in business communication

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By Goke Ilesanmi

Another concept critical to effective business communication is grammatical voice. Communication is simply defined as the process by which information is shared between two people or organisations, or among individuals, etc. We need to be very conscious of the way we use language in communication, and this takes us to the issue of grammatical voice. Effective deployment of grammatical voice is key to our day-to-day communication and business success.

Grammatical Voice

Grammatical voice refers to the structural distinction between active and passive constructions, which though share the same meaning. It also refers to the aspect of a verb showing whether the noun or pronoun that functions as the subject of a sentence is the doer or receiver of an action. There are two types of grammatical voice, that is, active and passive. In active voice, the noun or pronoun that functions as the subject of a sentence performs the action expressed by the verb. But in passive voice, the noun or pronoun that functions as the subject of a sentence receives the action expressed by the verb.

At this analytical juncture, let us examine these two types of voice one after the other.

Active Voice

In active voice, the doer of an action is functionally referred to as the subject while the receiver is considered the object, e.g., “Adebola bought a car”. In this sentence, “Adebola” is the doer of the action and functions as the subject of the sentence; “bought” is the verb; while “a car” is the receiver of the action and functions as the object. The active voice is especially used when the focus is on the doer of the action.

There are divided opinions among grammarians and communicators as regards the use of active and passive types of grammatical voice. Some argue that active voice is better used because it is direct and concrete, while some subscribe to the use of passive voice because it can be used to show courtesy among other uses.

As a grammarian and communicator, I would like to submit convincingly that the choice between active and passive types of voice in communication depends on situational appropriateness, so it is actually not the case that one is ALWAYS better than the other.

Uses of Active Voice

Active voice is used when we want to be direct, forceful or concrete in goodwill or sales letters, e.g. “We, ABC Limited sell… We also sell other products such as….” There is emphasis on the noun phrase “We, ABC Limited” in this expression and that is why it is placed in the subject position to show that it is not another company that sells the products.

Active voice can also be employed in emphatic stress (that is, the stress used to show contrast), when the doer is the focus, e.g. “I said Nigerian NewsDirect not Financial Times, publishes the articles.”

Active voice can be used to achieve economy of words or compactness or brevity in business communication. For example, “We sell oil” (active voice and three words) instead of “Oil is sold by us” (passive voice and five words).

Now let us examine passive voice.

Passive Voice

In passive voice, the doer of the action functions as the object while the receiver functions as the subject. For active voice to change to passive voice, three major forms of syntactic transformation must come into being. One, the subject and object of the active voice will interchange positions. Two, the verbal element increases in number, with the main or lexical verb changing to the past-participle form of the active-voice main verb and preceded by an auxiliary verb. Three, the preposition “by” is inserted immediately after the verb phrase (that is, main and auxiliary verbs). Therefore, “Adebola bought a car” (active voice) becomes “A car was bought by Adebola” (passive voice).

Uses of Passive Voice

One of the qualities of good and effective business communication is courtesy. In a letter of complaint, for example, one needs to be very polite and less critical even in the face of disappointment and anger.

Assuming you have placed an order for some goods in a particular company, and most of the goods now supplied are bad, naturally, you will be angry and disappointed. In writing to the company, it is better to assume an impersonal tone.

If not, your anger will be anti-socially reflected and you will be seen as being rude. In this type of situation, you need to employ passive voice to be courteous. Instead of saying “I write to inform you that most of the goods YOU SUPPLIED us are bad” (active voice), it is better and more courteous to say “I write to inform you that most of the goods WE WERE SUPPLIED are bad” (passive voice). In this second option, you are sounding impersonal by not mentioning their name, thereby disguising your anger beneath a cheerful tone, to sustain goodwill.

NOTE:  Courtesy can also be conveyed in this context through impersonal-note active voice by changing the verb type, e.g., “We write to notify you that most of the goods WE BOUGHT yesterday are not in good condition” (Active voice and impersonal).

After all, it is not, “We write to notify you that most of the goods YOU SOLD TO US yesterday are not in good condition” (active voice and personal).

To be continued

PS: For those making inquiries about our Public Speaking, Business Presentation and Professional Writing Skills programme, please visit the website indicated on this page for details.

GOKE ILESANMI (FIIM, FIMC, CMC), CEO of Gokmar Communication Consulting, is an International Platinum Columnist, Professional Public Speaker, Career Mgt Coach and Certified Mgt Consultant. He is also a Book Reviewer, Biographer and Editorial Consultant.

Tel: 08055068773; 08187499425

Email: gokeiles2010@gmail.com

Website: www.gokeilesanmi.com.ng

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