By Goke Ilesanmi
Last week, we said another concept critical to effective business communication is grammatical voice. We explained that communication is simply defined as the process by which information is shared between two people or organisations, or among individuals, etc. We stressed that there is therefore need to be very conscious of the way we use language in communication, and this accounts for our discussion of the concept of grammatical voice. We said effective deployment of grammatical voice is key to our day-to-day communication and business success.
We said grammatical voice refers to the structural distinction between active and passive constructions, which though share the same meaning. We added that 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.
We explained that there are two types of grammatical voice, that is, active and passive. We said in active voice, the noun or pronoun that functions as the subject of a sentence performs the action expressed by the verb. We added that in passive voice, the noun or pronoun that functions as the subject of a sentence receives the action expressed by the verb.
We emphasised that there are divided opinions among grammarians and communicators as regards the use of active and passive types of grammatical voice, with some arguing 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.
We resolved 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. Then we x-rayed different uses of active voice and discussed uses of passive voice halfway.
We said active voice is used when we want to be direct, forceful or concrete in goodwill or sales letters. We added that it can be employed in emphatic stress (that is, the stress used to show contrast), when the doer is the focus. We said active voice can be used to achieve economy of words, compactness or brevity in business communication.
As regards passive voice, we said it can be used to show courtesy in a letter of complaint, for example, where one needs to be very polite and less critical even in the face of disappointment and anger. We said 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. We advised that in writing to the company, it is better to assume an impersonal tone by writing in passive voice.
Uses of Passive Voice
In a related development, passive voice is also used when emphasis is on the receiver of an action rather than the doer. For example, a company launching a new product into the market amid its range of existing products will not be thinking about inter-company rivalry now, but about giving publicity to this latest product. Therefore, emphasis falls on the new product. In this case, passive voice is employed, e.g. “Kosa is a new product produced by us at ABC Limited. Kosa is prepared under a very hygienic situation.” If the company starts to mention its own name first and repeatedly instead of the new product, then the focus of the advert is lost, therefore the intended awareness-creation effort for the product will be fruitless.
Additionally, passive voice can be used in emphatic stress when the focus is on the receiver of the action rather than the doer, e.g. “I said my articles, not tributes, are published by Nigerian NewsDirect.”
Furthermore, passive voice is used when the doers are general and implicit, e.g. “Basketball is played all over the world”. Here, it is already known that it is people that play basketball, so including “People” is not necessary.
The passive voice is equally employed, when the doer of an action is not known to avoid self-implication in the business environment or elsewhere. For example, assuming one is walking alone in the company and then sees a person lying dead with deep cuts all over his or her body, it is better to say “Somebody has been killed there” rather than say “They have killed somebody there”, in which case one is claiming knowledge of the killers. Assuming policemen are conducting investigation into the incident and hear one saying this, one might be asked to come and clarify some issues, because one’s utterance shows one has the knowledge of the killers. So passive voice is employed in this type of situation to avoid self-implication.
Even in the headlines of newspapers where active voice is mostly preferred, passive voice is occasionally employed when the doer of the action is not known, e.g. “Two pipelines vandalised at Kolosa”. Note that newspaper headlines stylistically avoid auxiliary verbs such as “am”, “is”, “are”, etc.
Finally, the interference problem in the English Language spoken by the Yoruba speakers, where the unreal plural or honorific pronoun is used for a single person can be solved with the use of passive voice. For example, if a Yoruba person is asked to call another person, he or she will TRADITIONALLY say “They are calling you”, irrespective of whether the person that has told him or her to help call another person is older than he or she is or not. This is a literal or direct translation, that is, word-for-word translation. To arrest this translation problem, it is better to use the passive voice by saying “You are (being) called” or simply “Your attention is needed”.
Also note that while changing an active-voice sentence to a passive-voice one and vice versa, there must be accuracy both in tense and structure. The exact type of tense and structure must be adhered to.
On a note of recapitulation, we need to be conscious of use of appropriate voice type in our (business) communication. The choice between active and passive types of voice in communication depends on situational appropriateness, but not the case that one is always better than the other.
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.
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