How To Keep Zombie Sentences From Infecting Your Writing

May 31, 2023

I’ve previously warned of the dangers of writing with vampire words – those useless words and phrases that latch on to sentences and bleed them dry of meaning and vitality; bloodsuckers like “focus” and “prioritize” and “process.”

In sticking with the horror theme, this post is about zombie sentences, those lifeless clumps of words that lurch and stagger through memos, emails, white papers and reports. Like zombies, these sentences drag themselves across the page, shuffling along without any real animate spark or personality.

Specifically, I’m talking about passive voice, the default construction for too much business writing. What’s passive voice? It’s when a noun that would be the object of an active sentence instead becomes the subject of the sentence. For example:

Active voice: Michonne cut off the zombie’s head. – The subject is Michonne, who acts on the object (the zombie’s head).

Passive voice: The zombie’s head was cut off by Michonne. – Here the zombie’s head occupies the usual position of grammatical subject and Michonne switches to the spot usually occupied by the object.

Well, so long as the zombie is decapitated, who cares?

You should.

In most cases, passive voice weakens your writing, robbing it of clarity, energy and momentum. It also implies a lack of ownership and responsibility. Consider the usual politician’s copout: Mistakes were made. The implication is that no one made the mistake; it just happened.

Like a solitary zombie, a single passive sentence does not pose much danger. But in large numbers, zombie sentences can overwhelm and devour the brains of any reader. Consider the following:

A meeting was held to discuss Q3 results and to plan initiatives for the coming year. Reports from the relevant committees were delivered and discussed by attendees. It was decided that the reports would be combined and presented to the C-suite in preparation for a companywide strategy. Further deliberations were postponed until the next meeting. Lastly, it was agreed that the Cinnabon order would be doubled for the next meeting.     

Horrible, isn’t it? Sentences barely alive, yet relentless in their tedium.

It’s not uncommon for vampire words and zombie sentences to come together to form some truly ghastly writing: A consensus was reached to strategically leverage the assets in a focused implementation. This sort of writing calls for mobs with torches and pitchforks.

Passive voice can be sneaky. You know how in every zombie movie someone gets bitten and keeps it a secret and no one knows until the victim turns full zombie and attacks? Passive voice also can go undetected until the damage is done.

How to spot passive voice? Look for a form of “to be” (is, are, am, was, were, has been, have been, had been, will be, will have been, being) followed by a past participle (a form of the verb that typically ends in –ed), and you have passive voice, i.e. We have all been chased and bitten.

If that sounds too much like grade school grammar, here’s a simpler way that uses zombies to detect zombie sentences. If you can tack the phrase “by zombies” to the end of a sentence and it still makes sense, then you have passive voice.

The research was analyzed and a final report was delivered to the client . . . by zombies.

A search for the CEO’s replacement was initiated . . . by zombies.

Neat, huh? It’s like getting zombies to eat each other instead of us.

On TV, there is no cure for the zombie virus; the only recourse is a bullet to the brain. But there is a happy ending in business writing. Zombie sentences can be restored to life and it’s usually quite easy to do. The antidote? Use active voice, the old subject/verb/object sentence structure.

Instead of “The research was analyzed and a final report was delivered to the client” try “We analyzed the research and delivered a final report to the client.”

Instead of having something being done to someone, have someone do something.

“Further changes were made to the logo by the artist” becomes “The artist made further changes to the logo.” Cured!

Of course, there are times when it’s a good idea to use passive voice, just as it’s allowed — once in a great while — to let a zombie live. (Remember the end of Shaun of the Deadwhen Shaun chains up Zombie Ed so they can still play video games?) Here’s when passive voice works:

  • When you don’t know who did something or want to de-emphasize who did it: The quarantine was put into place too late to stop the outbreak.
  • To emphasize an object: A zombie herd was spotted crossing the highway.

The outbreak of zombie sentences has reached pandemic levels. Keep your writing clean and aim for the head.