Communication is simply defined as the process by which information is shared between two people or organisations, or among individuals, etc. Communication may be human and non-human in nature. Non-human form of communication may be onomatopoeic manifestations such as the mew of the cat, coo of the dove, the squeak of the rat, the cuckoo of the cuckoo, the baa of the sheep, etc. Because human form of communication refers to the exchange of ideas or feelings among human beings, one thing that is especially central to it is language.
We need to be very careful about the way we use language in communication, and this takes us to the issue of the grammatical voice. Effective deployment of grammatical voice is critical to our day-to-day communication and business success. But before we examine voice, it is necessary to look at the necessary qualities of good and effective business communication, especially business letters, as a background to our subsequent discussion.
Qualities of effective business communication
Good and effective business communication must have the following qualities: conciseness, completeness, correctness, clarity, consideration, courtesy and concreteness.
Conciseness: This refers to the idea of being brief and direct to the point. However, being brief does not mean that completeness must be compromised.
Completeness: This involves giving the recipient all the information needed. For example, if a customer has written to you to know some things about your product(s) or organisation, you have to include the answers to all his or her inquiry in your reply.
Correctness: A business letter, for instance, must be correct in information, style and structure. That is, you use the right language, format and factual information.
Clarity: Here you avoid ambiguous statements such as, “Give me more quality products”, which can be interpreted as either “Give me more of these quality products” or “I need better products not these substandard ones”. Avoid the use of complex choice of words and lengthy sentences.
Consideration: Here you put the recipient in mind. That is, you consider his or her level of understanding, interest, emotion, needs, problems, personality, likely response, etc.
Courtesy: To create or sustain goodwill, good business communication must show respect. Even in the face of provocation from a customer or seller, politeness must not be sacrificed.
Concreteness: Here, one needs to use image-building words instead of obscure ones. The tone of a business letter for instance, must be specific and active. It must sound personal and effective. It must be definite and positive.
Now let us discuss grammatical voice and its relevance to our daily (business) communication.
Grammatical voice refers to the structural distinction between an active and a passive construction, which though share the same meaning. There are two types of grammatical voice, that is, active and passive. Let us examine these two types of voice one after the other.
In active voice, the doer of an action is functionally referred to as the subject while the receiver is considered the object, e.g., “Adebola bought a car”. In this sentence, “Adebola” is the doer of the action and functions as the subject of the sentence; “bought” is the verb; while “a car” is the receiver of the action and functions as the object. The active voice is especially used when the focus is on the doer of the action.
There are divided opinions among grammarians and communicators as regards the use of active and passive types of grammatical voice. Some argue that active voice is better used because it is direct and concrete, while some subscribe to the use of passive voice because it shows courtesy. As a grammarian, I would like to submit convincingly that 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.
Uses of Active Voice
Active voice is used when we want to be direct, forceful or concrete in goodwill or sales letters, e.g. “We sell… We also sell other products such as….” There is emphasis on “We” in this expression and that is why it is placed in the subject position to show that it is not another company that sells the products. Active voice can also be employed in emphatic stress (that is, the stress used to show contrast), when the doer is the focus, e.g. “I said EzineArticles.com not Google, publishes the articles.” Active voice can be used to achieve economy of words or compactness in business communication. For example, “We sell oil” (active voice=three words) instead of “Oil is sold by us” (passive voice=five words).
Now let us examine passive voice.
In passive voice, the doer of the action functions as the object while the receiver functions as the subject. For active voice to change to passive voice, three major forms of syntactic transformation must come into being. One, the subject and object of the active voice will interchange positions. Two, the verbal element increases in number, with the main or lexical verb changing to the past-participle form of the active-voice main verb and preceded by an auxiliary verb. Three, the preposition “by” is inserted immediately after the verb phrase (that is, main and auxiliary verbs). Therefore, “Adebola BOUGHT a car” (active voice) becomes “A car WAS BOUGHT BY Adebola” (passive voice).
Uses of Passive Voice
As mentioned earlier, one of the qualities of good and effective business communication is courtesy. In a letter of complaint, for example, one needs to be very polite and less critical even in the face of disappointment and anger. 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. In writing to the company, it is better to assume an impersonal tone.
If not, your anger will be anti-socially reflected and you will be seen as being rude. In this type of situation, you need to employ passive voice to be courteous. Instead of saying “I write to inform you that most of the goods YOU SUPPLIED us are bad” (active voice), it is more polite to say “I write to inform you that most of the goods WE WERE SUPPLIED are bad” (passive voice). In this second option, you are sounding impersonal by not mentioning their name, thereby disguising your anger beneath a cheerful tone, to sustain goodwill.
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 popularising 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. Kosa is prepared under a very hygienic situation.” If the company starts to mention its 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 articles, not cubicles, are published by EzineArticles.com.” 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.