A Scathing Deconstruction of Corporate Passive Voice

Posted: January 6, 2012 in General Writing Tips

Due to my chic streak of geek, I love electronic gadgets. So I enjoyed this Forbes article on why Best Buy has created its own death spiral. For readers of this blog, I found the author’s zinging critique of corporate writing in the passive voice particularly illustrative. Here’s a sample:

The company issued a statement that read:  “Due to overwhelming demand of hot product offerings on BestBuy.com during the November and December time period, we have encountered a situation that has affected redemption of some of our customers’ online orders.”

Let’s parse that sentence for a moment.  The company “encountered a situation”—that is, it was a passive victim of an external problem it couldn’t control, in this case, customers daring to order products it acknowledges were “hot” buys.  This happened, inconveniently for Best Buy, during “the November and December period,” that is, the only months that matter to a retailer. For obvious reasons, the statement ties itself in knots trying to avoid mentioning that the “situation” occurred during the holidays.

The situation that Best Buy “encountered” has “affected redemption” of some orders.  Best Buy doesn’t fill online orders, it seems.  Rather, customers “redeem” them.  So it’s the customers, not Best Buy, who have the problem.  And those customers haven’t been left hanging; they’ve only been “affected” in efforts to “redeem” their orders.  It’s not as if the company did anything wrong, or, indeed, anything at all.

It’s all so passive.  It’s also a transparent and truly feeble pack of lies.  Here’s what the honest and appropriate release would have said:  “Due to poor inventory management and sales forecasting of the most popular products during our key sales season, we can’t fill orders we promised to fill weeks ago in time for Christmas.”

The rest of the article fascinated me from a business perspective, and if you choose to read it, you’ll find a bit more deconstruction of passive writing. Larry Downes, the author quoted above, provides a textbook example of one reason readers despise the passive voice. Bureaucratic weasels use it to bury the truth under patronizing, pompous-sounding, multisyllabic doublespeak.

You can’t rock your readers’ world by condescending to them or lying to them. Therefore, tell the truth. And write it using the active voice.

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Comments
  1. Ken Bour says:

    AMEN!

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