Are you aware of the risks of overusing the passive voice in your writing? In the readability analysis in our Yoast SEO plugin, we recommend using the passive voice in a maximum of 10% of your sentences. But why? In this post, I will discuss a couple of key questions about the passive voice. I’ll start by explaining what it is. Then, I’ll explain why it is usually best to avoid using the passive voice in your writing. To cap it off, I’ll describe some situations in which using the passive voice makes perfect sense.
What is the passive voice?
The passive voice is a grammatical construction. The easiest way to explain the passive voice is by contrasting it with the active voice. The active voice is the standard English sentence structure. The simplest possible sentences feature an actor (the subject), who does (the verb) something to either a person, animal or thing (the receiver).
|Semantic function||actor||direct verb||receiver|
In the passive voice, the actor and receiver are switched around. The receiver becomes the grammatical subject. Note that the meaning of the sentence stays exactly the same. The only difference is the word order.
|Word||I||was hugged||by mom|
|Semantic function||receiver||direct verb||actor|
In some passive sentences, you can omit the actor. ‘I was hugged’, for example, is a perfectly sensible passive sentence, although it provides less information.
Why should I avoid the passive voice?
Let’s cut to the chase: using the passive voice almost always makes your writing more distant and your message less clear. There are two main reasons for this.
First of all, the passive voice is wordy. The passive alternative to an active sentence is simply longer. Consider these two sentences:
1. The passive voice almost always makes your message less clear.
2. Your message is almost always made less clear by using the passive voice.
You convey the same message by using the passive but add three words. When overusing the passive voice in your text, this can really add up.
In addition, the passive voice uses a sentence structure which requires more cognitive effort. Your reader will spend valuable working memory on making sense of the sentence. This decreases the likelihood of you getting your message across.
Let’s explore why the passive voice demands more effort. As I told you before, the basic active sentence structure is quite consistent and logical in English. The passive voice turns this all the way around. You first read what was affected. Then you read what happened to it. Lastly, you learn how it was affected. You discover who or what was responsible only at the very end. This sequence differs from how we usually make sense of events.
Moreover, we expect the actor to be in the subject position, so we are slightly disoriented. This means constructing an image of what happens takes a tiny moment longer. Again, these moments can easily add up if you overuse the passive voice.
In the example I gave, there is no added benefit to using the passive: the active sentence conveys the same information. Whenever you use passive voice, always consider whether a better, active alternative is available.
What are the exceptions?
Sometimes, using the passive voice can be the only logical way to word a sentence. Mostly, this occurs when the actor is unknown or irrelevant. Let’s look at an example I used in the first paragraph of this very text:
In the passive voice, the actor and receiver are switched around.
There is no identifiable actor here, nor would he or she be relevant. After all, we’re talking about a general action here, not a specific one. Any alternative active sentence would be less clear and concise than the passive sentence I wrote, so it’s the best option available.
Alternatively, you may want to use a passive sentence to focus on the receiver. This works when the object is more central to the topic than the actor:
J.F. Kennedy was killed in 1963 in Dallas, Texas by Lee Harvey Oswald.
This means that we’re not here to tell you to avoid the passive voice like the plague. If it beats the active alternative, by all means: use it! Rules about style are hardly ever set in stone, so don’t make the mistake of following the rule of thumb too strictly. Do what seems right to you and what makes your text flow nicely. A maximum of 10% generally suffices. You should be able to achieve numbers even lower than that by following our advice.
Using the passive voice is generally a bad idea. 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.
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