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Concourse 2

Business English and the passive voice


This guide will not cover the considerable structural and semantic complications of the passive voice in English.  For that, you are referred to the general guide to the passive voice in the in-service training section, linked below.
Here, we are concerned with how the passive is used in Business English contexts.


Five reasons

We do, however, need to remind ourselves of the five main reasons for using the passive voice in English and then to see which ones fit most easily with the use of English in a business context.
We also need to look briefly at the concepts that underlie these five uses.
The five are:

  1. Because we are less interested in the agent and more concerned with the patient.  For example, in:
        The invoice was issued
    We are not concerned with the agent (probably, we know it's someone in the finance department).  We are concerned with what happened to the invoice (the patient, not the agent).
  2. Because it's obvious what the subject is so unnecessary to state it.  For example, in:
        The CEO must be consulted
    we are aware that it is people in the company who do the consulting.
  3. Because we don't know what the subject is.  For example, in:
        Security has been breached
    we don't know who breached security.
  4. Because, stylistically or for social reasons, we are concerned not to identify the agent.  For example, in:
        A mistake has been identified
    we do not want to lay blame at anyone's door (certainly not our own) so we omit the agent altogether.
  5. Because we want to emphasise the agent.  This is often a spoken form because we need to stress the agent when we speak.  For example:
        The invoice was issued by the Finance Department
    emphasises the fact that it is the Finance Department to whom you should refer if there is a problem.



Underlying all the reasons above is the concept of markedness.  The passive is, in English and most other languages, marked in some way to lend weight to an item.  For example, we can choose to say:

  1. The boss has arranged a meeting for this afternoon
        or we can say:
  2. A meeting has been arranged for this afternoon
        but we are less likely to say:
  3. A meeting has been arranged for this afternoon by the boss

In sentence 1, The boss is the marked item because the phrase occupies the theme position in the sentence and implies that the boss is the main player.  The point of departure for what follows is the boss' role and actions.
In sentence 2, it is The meeting which occupies the topical theme slot and that is the point of departure for what follows (the rheme).
Sentence 3, perversely, also emphasises the role of the boss, because English tends to place important items towards the end of clauses and the use of the agent in the passive structure emphasises who called the meeting, not the meeting itself.

task Task:
To make this even clearer to learners (and you), decide which of the following three clauses is like to come next in the three cases above:
  1. and it'll be at 3 in the conference room
  2. and he expects everyone to be there
  3. so our meeting will have to wait
Click here when you have an answer.


Selecting passive constructions in Business English

This is not the place to explain or suggest how best to approach teaching the structural nuts and bolts of forming passive clauses.  On a Business English course, most participants will know how to do that.  What they need help with is identifying when and why the passive should be used.
Most business-oriented communication is quite formal and it is in formal writing and speaking that passive constructions are most common.
Here are three of the reasons why we select the forms and the sorts of forms we will select:

Impersonal tone
    The delivery schedule will be with you by Thursday of next week
    I'll get the delivery schedule to you by Thursday of next week
In the first sentence, the writer / speaker has selected the passive in order to make it clear that she takes no personal responsibility for the promise about Thursday.  Keeping things impersonal.
In the second sentence, the writer / speaker has committed herself to the promise and the reader / hearer will know who to contact to complain if the promise is not kept.  Making it personal.
Which form is selected is not a grammatical or even semantic issue, it is a pragmatic one to do with the relationship between the participants and the tone of the interaction.
Neither is, in other words, correct in any sense but learners need to be aware of the effect of selecting one form over another.
An intermediate statement can be formed along the lines of
    We'll get the delivery schedule to you by Thursday
which commits not the individual but the organisation itself to the promise.
Emphasising the agent
Even in the written form, the by-phrase may serve to emphasise responsibility, and, indeed, move it from the speaker / writer to another.
Compare, for example:
    The department manager wrote the report
    The report was written by the department manager
In the first case, the discourse may naturally be continued with
    ... which was presented to the board
but in the second case, a more likely continuation, which emphasises responsibility would be
    ... who was not aware of the potential problems.
The choice of the type of relative pronoun clause depends on the use of the passive voice.
Omitting the agent
The passive voice is frequently seen in business-orientated texts because of shared information between speaker and hearer or writer and reader so the use of the agent or the making of an active-voice sentence is unconventional and may sound strange.  For example:
    Our factory in Strasburg made the packaging
    The receptionists will welcome the clients on arrival
    The PA has made the appointments for tomorrow
    She has reserved a parking space for you
all mark the subject, because it is in the theme position and make it appear more important than the object whereas:
    The packaging was made in Strasburg
    The clients will be welcomed on arrival
    The appointments have been made for tomorrow
    A parking space has been reserved for you
are more both more likely and more natural because the agent is either known, unknown or of no importance.


The passive infinitive

Because the direct use of modal auxiliary verbs, especially those used deontically (to express degrees of obligation), is unusual in formal language or Business English settings, passive infinitives are commonly used.  So for example, instead of:
    You must agree the terms of the contract
we will often prefer
    The terms of the contract must be agreed
because it is far less direct and discourteous.
Additionally, instead of:
    You should have let me know about the meeting
we would normally prefer
    I should have been told about the meeting
which saves the face of the hearer by neatly omitting the guilty party.
By the same token:
    The Finance Department ought to have issued the invoices immediately
is probably better put as:
    The invoices should have been issued immediately
because everyone knows who issues invoices and there is no need to single out the guilty party.
Passive infinitives are, however, not easy to handle and learners require a good deal of exposure and practice.
There are three main sorts:

  1. Present passive infinitives are formed by using the modal auxiliary verb and the infinitive of be plus the past participle of the main verb.  Like this:
        The meeting can be held on Thursday
        The order should be processed soon
        The work may not be completed in time
  2. Perfect passive infinitives are formed with have been plus the past participle and occur mostly with modal auxiliary verbs as a commentary on the past as in, e.g.:
        That should not have been promised
        The package may have gone astray
        The reports needn't have been so long
        The work could have been completed much earlier
    An important conceptual point is that the form looks very similar to the present perfect tense but does not necessarily carry the sense of present relevance.  The perfect passive infinitive is, therefore, a past tense, not a present perfect tense.
  3. Double passives
    Passive infinitives often co-occur with other passive constructions, forming double passives such as:
        The order is expected to be filled by the end of the week
    Some find such constructions clumsy at best, plain wrong at worst.

Although the passive infinitive is frequently used with modal auxiliary verbs that is not solely the case because the form also occurs with other verbs as in:
    The manager asked to be kept informed of progress
    The customer has requested to be told when the order is dispatched
    The director expected it to have been done


Dynamic and stative passives and participle adjectives

In some languages, such as German, many other Germanic languages, Spanish and Italian, there is a distinction between a dynamic passive and a stative passive and that is signalled by the choice of auxiliary verb.  English can make this distinction by the use of the verb get instead of the more usual be to form the passive as in, for example:
    The production schedule was disturbed
    The production schedule got disturbed
However, in English, the use of get to form a passive is considered informal at best (some disparage it altogether as being slang, which it is not) and that is not a characteristic generally parallelled in other languages.  The use of get to form a passive is, therefore, unusual in Business English and somewhat jarring when it is used in formal contexts.
Because English can use the verb be to signal both a dynamic and a stative passive, it is usually the preferred choice.  In English, for example:
    The email was issued by the Human Resources manager
can refer to both the action of issuing the email and the state of the email concerning its source where other languages might distinguish these aspects.
If the distinction does need to be made, the safe choice in English is to rephrase the clause in the active voice, where this is possible.
It is, unfortunately not always possible to use an active-voice construction when the agent is unknown or obvious so, for example:
    The staff was upset
could mean that the staff was in a state of being upset or that something in particular upset them.  Rephrasing in the active voice is not possible unless the agent is known so we might have:
    The changes upset the staff
    The manager upset the staff
    The new working practices upset the staff
and so on but all of these, as we have seen, put the agent in the theme position and mark it for importance.

The good news is that English does not distinguish the form of a participle used as an adjective and the participle forming part of an agentless passive construction so, for example, in:
    It is important to ensure that the customer is not inconvenienced
the word inconvenienced can be seen as an adjective to describe the customer or as part of a passive construction and for communicative purposes, the distinction does not matter.  And in:
    The staff was upset
the word upset is clearly adjectival in nature because it can be modified conventionally as in
    The staff was extremely upset
and the active use is rare or disallowed:
    *The manager extremely upset the staff

The less good news is that English syntax differs when a verb form is used adjectivally.
The issue concerns the use of complementation by a that-clause or a by- phrase.  The former is confined to adjectival uses and the latter to verbal uses.
So, for example:
    The client was disappointed that the order didn't arrive on time
is an adjectival use of disappointed and
    *The client was disappointed by the order did not arrive on time
is not allowed because the by-phrase is a signal of verbal use and needs a noun-phrase complement.  We need to rephrase that as:
    The client was disappointed by the late arrival of the order

Learners whose first languages distinguish the form of adjectives from the forms of verbs in passive constructions are prone to errors of this sort.

voice for a general and more elementary guide to voice
the passive for the in-service guide to the area which includes consideration of teaching approaches and much else