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: the (new) legal writer

When passive voice should be used


Generally you should prefer the active voice to passive voice. A sentence in active voice is more direct and less verbose than one expressing the same thought in passive voice.

But this is a general rule, not an absolute rule. Sometimes the passive voice enables you to put the most important words where they will be most noticed: the end of the sentence or its beginning. For instance, Ed Good and Bryan Garner advise writers to use the passive voice when necessary to put the punch word at the end of the sentence.1 And George Gopen advocates using the passive voice when necessary to put the right information in the topic position, toward the front of the sentence.2

So it?s no surprise that some web-design experts have figured out that passive voice can come in handy to front-load important keywords in headings and lead sentences. The idea is simple: When writing for the Web, you must capture the reader?s attention within the first two words. Sometimes the only way to front-load the sentence with the two most interesting words is to use the passive voice.3

Fortunately for us legal writers, we usually have a little more than two words to grab the reader?s attention. Bryan Garner figures that we have 90 seconds to get that done.4 Still, the more quickly you grab the reader?s attention, the better you?re doing your job. And sometimes the quickest way to grab the reader?s attention ? the way to put the high-impact words up front ? is to use the passive voice.


1 C. Edward Good, Mightier Than the Sword 126?27 (1989); Bryan A. Garner, The Winning Brief 189 (2d ed. 2003).

2 George D. Gopen, The Sense of Structure 67 (2004).

3 Jakob Nielsen, Passive Voice is Redeemed for the Web (Oct. 22, 2007), viewed Feb. 6, 2008. Hat-tip trail: Michel Fortin via Brad Schorr.

4 Bryan A. Garner, The Winning Brief 55 (2d ed. 2003).

Full post as published by the (new) legal writer on February 06, 2008 (boomark / email).

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