Tips for Concision 11: Assess passive voice.

The passive voice always takes more words than the same idea in the active voice:

The motion was written by Carl (6 words) becomes Carl wrote the motion (4 words).

In the passive-voice sentence, I used an object (motion) as the subject of the sentence, where it’s receiving an action rather than doing an action. I moved the actor, the doer of the action, (Carl) to a prepositional phrase at the end. That’s standard with passive-voice sentences:

The fee will be paid by Lessor.

Of course, we can write shorter passive-voice sentences if we leave the actor out entirely:

The motion was written.
The fee will be paid.

And yes, there are times in legal writing when we want to leave the actor out of the sentence. Here are three:

  1. The actor is unknown or irrelevant: The police were notified (we don’t know or care by whom).
  2. Your focus is on the object: Treyco’s account was frozen, not Anderson’s.
  3. You seek to avoid the appearance of responsibility: All the claim files had been lost.

So the advice is not to remove all passive voice but to assess each use. As you edit, ask yourself: Do I need the passive voice here? If not, revising to the active voice promotes concision. If the passive voice wasn’t actually called for in the previous examples, and we wanted the actor in the sentence, here’s how we could edit for concision:

  1. The police were notified by Sampson becomes Sampson notified the police.
  2. Treyco’s account, not Anderson’s, was frozen by the bank becomes The bank froze Treyco’s account, not Anderson’s.
  3. All the claim files had been lost by Southwest Insurance becomes Southwest Insurance had lost all the claim files.