Using and avoiding the passive voice

In the SEO analysis in our Yoast SEO plugin, we recommend using the passive voice in a maximum of 10% of your sentences. But how can you avoid using passive sentences? That’s what you’ll discover here. We’ll start by explaining what the passive voice is. Then, you’ll discover why it is usually best to avoid using the passive voice in your writing. After that, we’ll show you how to rewrite passive sentences into active sentences. To cap it off, we’ll discuss some situations in which using the passive voice makes perfect sense.

What is the passive voice?

The passive voice is an alternative way of structuring your sentence. Most English sentences are written in the active voice. Let’s look at the active voice first and then see how the passive voice is different. 

The simplest sentences in English have an actor (the subject), who does (the verb) something to either a person, animal or thing (the receiver). Let’s say my mom hugged me. My mom is the actor, because she’s the one who does the hugging. Hugged is the verb: it’s what my mom did. I am the receiver: I don’t do anything, I just get hugged.

Word Mom hugged me
Semantic function actor direct verb  receiver

In the passive voice, the actor and receiver are switched around in the sentence structure. The receiver becomes the grammatical subject and is mentioned first. Note that the meaning of the sentence stays exactly the same.

Word I was hugged by mom
Semantic function receiver direct verb actor

In some passive sentences, you can leave the actor out. I was hugged, for example, is a perfectly sensible passive sentence, although it provides less information.

Why should I avoid the passive voice?

Using the passive voice almost always makes your writing more distant and your message less clear. There are two main reasons for this.

1. It’s wordy

First of all, the passive voice is wordy. Passive sentences are simply longer. Consider these two sentences:

  • Active: The passive voice almost always makes your message less clear.
  • Passive: Your message is almost always made less clear by using the passive voice.

You say the same thing by using the passive, but add three words. This can really add up if you use it too often.

2. It’s more difficult to understand

You’re less likely to get your message across with passive sentences because your reader will spend more energy on making sense of the sentence. That’s because you only learn who was responsible for a certain action all the way at the end of the sentence. Forming a mental image of what is going on takes a tiny moment longer with passive sentences. These moments can easily add up if you overuse the passive voice. Whenever you use passive voice, always consider whether a better, active alternative is available.

Learn more about this check in Yoast SEO in our explanation of the passive voice assessment.

How can I rewrite passive sentences into active sentences?

Almost every passive sentence has an active counterpart. If you can’t find an active alternative, you should just use the passive form. We’ll discuss some examples in the next paragraph.

Let’s focus on rewriting passive voice sentences into active ones first, though. We’ll give an example for every tense in English in which the passive makes sense.

When you rewrite a passive sentence into an active sentence, two things happen:

1. The verb changes.
2. The actor and receiver are switched around.

The change of the verb is most difficult. Therefore, we’ll highlight it. Of course, the examples below are really simple, but all the important information is there. Most sentences just have more words after the subject, verb and object. Those words will not change when you rewrite the sentence.

Tense Passive voice Active    alternative  
Present simple A book is bought by me. I buy a book.
Present simple continuous A book is being bought by me. I am buying a book.
Present perfect A book has been bought by me. I have bought a book.
Past simple A book was bought by me. I bought a book.
Past simple continuous A book was being bought by me. I was buying a book.
Past perfect A book had been bought by me. I had bought a book.
Future A book will be written by me. I will write a book.
Future perfect A book will have been written by me. I will have bought a book.

What are the exceptions?

Sometimes, using the passive voice can be the only logical way to word a sentence. There are two major examples (and some smaller ones we’ll ignore for the sake of clarity).

1. When there is no actor or the actor is less relevant.

Let’s look at an example:

In the passive voice, the actor and receiver are switched around.

There is no actor here. We don’t know who switches the actor and receiver around. Any alternative active sentence would be less clear and concise than the passive sentence I wrote, so it’s the best option available.

2. You may want to use a passive sentence to focus on the receiver.

This happens when the object is more important than the actor:

J.F. Kennedy was killed by Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas, Texas in 1963.

That sentence is very clear and perfectly acceptable. Don’t avoid the passive voice like the plague. If it beats the active alternative, by all means: use it! Don’t make the mistake of following the rule of thumb too strictly. Choose the alternative that makes your text flow nicely. A maximum of 10% is a good guideline for passive sentences. You should be able to achieve numbers even lower than that by following our advice.

Conclusion

In most cases, active sentences are easier to understand than passive sentences. After writing your text, scan it for passive voice constructions. Always ask yourself: is a better, active alternative available? If there is, use it. If not, use the passive voice. Want to learn more? Our SEO copywriting course allows you to actually practice rewriting passive sentences. Moreover, it discusses a lot of great writing tips besides avoiding the passive voice.