Grammar Phobic or Grammar Guru? Writing Rules to Use or Ignore (Part 1)

When it comes to business writing, it seems most of us fall into one of two general categories - Grammar Phobics or Grammar Gurus

You might be Grammar Phobic if you...

  • are intimidated by writing.
  • are happily ignorant of all the grammar "rules."

You might be a Grammar Guru if you...

  • are the proud owner of  a well-worn copy of the Chicago Manual of Style.
  • have been accused of writing in a style that's too stiff, technical, or formal.

Whether you're phobic or a guru, I'm sure we can all agree that good writing is the foundation of great training so it's time we focus on a few simple ways to improve writing quality to make training easier and more compelling for trainees.  Because grammar isn't the most exciting topic, let's start out easy - with one simple rule grammar phobics should embrace.

Embrace: Writing in an Active Voice

One of the biggest writing pet peeves I hear about is the use of passive voice.   What do I mean by passive voice and active voice? Here are examples of each:

This is an active statement because the subject (Mitch) is performing the action.  

See how Lauren became the subject even though she’s not the one doing the action?  This is a passive statement because the object (Lauren) was put into the subject's (Mitch's) position. 

Do you notice how the passive voice example is confusing and wordy compared to the active version? This is why passive voice writing has a bad rap.

When To Use Passive Voice

While active voice is preferable in most situation, passive voice isn't always a writing no-no - particularly when it comes to training. Here are a few examples of when using passive voice may be a good choice:

    1. To emphasize an object.

This sentence emphasizes the number of votes required. An active version of the sentence ("The measure requires 50 votes to pass") would put the emphasis on the measure, rather than the number of votes - which may be less important to trainees.

    1. When the subject or the object are unknown.

If you don't know who did what, writing in the passive voice may be better.  If you want to emphasize the unknown thief, an alternative wording might be “Somebody stole the money.”

    1. If your readers don't need to know (or you don’t want them to know) who's doing what.

When I’m writing a scenario, a multiple-choice question, or a case study designed to prompt critical-thinking, I often use passive voice to help direct the trainee’s attention or to obfuscate the details, forcing them to demonstrate their understanding of what I’ve just taught them.

Although this sentence is passive, it might be a good fit for the goals of my activity.  For instance, if I wanted trainees to demonstrate their knowledge of the office’s package handling procedures, keeping it vague (passive) might be the way to go.  On the other hand, if the goal is for trainees to apply new knowledge (active), it might be better to reword this statement with active phrasing (e.g.“Erik delivered the package to the receptionist at 9:30 a.m. yesterday”).

A final tip; as you're writing, give yourself time to think through the options that work best for your material.  Use the "purge and perfect" approach:  Do what it takes to get your thoughts onto the page for the first draft (I call this "the purge") and then pursue perfection in your revisions.  Of course this is all easier said than done for those of us who are recovering grammar phobes, so here are a few resources I turn to for help:


What are your grammatical conundrums or writing pet peeves?   Share your thoughts with the Mindflash community by clicking on the comment link.

Trina Rimmer is a learning and communications consultant with twelve years experience designing, developing, and delivering smart, engaging training solutions. When her training skills aren't being tested by her children, you'll find her helping others to develop their own design muscles. Contact Trina at

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