avoid the passive voice

It’s better to love than be loved:
why you should actively avoid the passive voice

Why you should actively avoid the passive voice

November 07th, 2017 – 35 Comments

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 pertaining to 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.

Learn how to write awesome and SEO friendly articles in our SEO Copywriting training »

SEO copywriting training Info

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).

Word Mom hugged me
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.

Wordy

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.

Sentence structure

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. Then 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 pertaining to style are seldom cast 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.

Conclusion

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.

Read more: ‘SEO copywriting: the ultimate guide’ »


35 Responses to Why you should actively avoid the passive voice

  1. Suresh Dubey
    By Suresh Dubey on 14 November, 2017

    Well explained active and passive sentences with the help of examples. Thanks, Jesse :)

    • Jesse van de Hulsbeek
      By Jesse van de Hulsbeek on 14 November, 2017

      You’re welcome, Suresh!

  2. Garrett Nafzinger
    By Garrett Nafzinger on 12 November, 2017

    I highly recommend http://www.hemingwayapp.com/ for helping you identify if you’re using passive voice too frequently and to help make your sentences more clear and your content easy to read.

    • Jesse van de Hulsbeek
      By Jesse van de Hulsbeek on 13 November, 2017

      That looks really interesting, Garrett, thanks for sharing your tip!

  3. Rich
    By Rich on 12 November, 2017

    Thanks. I use passive voice way too much. Your simple explanation will help me. Fewer words and simple meanings are best for blogs.

    • Jesse van de Hulsbeek
      By Jesse van de Hulsbeek on 13 November, 2017

      Good to hear you found the article useful, Rich. Good luck with your blog!

  4. Harriet Yoder
    By Harriet Yoder on 9 November, 2017

    Jesse, your explanation of passive voice is incredible. I love the readability feature in Yoast SEO and try to reduce my passive sentences. Knowing that switching receiver and actor in a passive sentence fixes it helps me a lot! Thank you! I look forward to reading more of your posts.

    • Jesse van de Hulsbeek
      By Jesse van de Hulsbeek on 9 November, 2017

      What a heart-warming reply, Harriet! Good luck implementing the tips in your writing!

  5. Rahadian
    By Rahadian on 9 November, 2017

    Thank you very much for this information, I’ve never realized this “passive voice” problem before, but yes I do agree with you and can see why now.

    • Jesse van de Hulsbeek
      By Jesse van de Hulsbeek on 9 November, 2017

      Glad to hear, Rahadian!

  6. Steve Warlick
    By Steve Warlick on 8 November, 2017

    I try to keep my blogs short and sweet. I don’t really enjoy reading, so I try to keep it simple. That way anyone could enjoy it and check it daily in a short amount of time. I hope that would bring them to my site more to see what I have to say. Every blog is considered to passive. I don’t really know what I must do differently .

    • Jesse van de Hulsbeek
      By Jesse van de Hulsbeek on 9 November, 2017

      Keeping it simple is generally a good idea! We do recommend using a minimum of 300 words for SEO purposes.

      • Steve Warlick
        By Steve Warlick on 9 November, 2017

        Thank you so much. I will try this .

  7. moosa
    By moosa on 8 November, 2017

    I also found it heard to understand , Seems you are sending me back to study again.

    • Jesse van de Hulsbeek
      By Jesse van de Hulsbeek on 9 November, 2017

      The passive voice is always a challenge! Consider checking out some grammar sites to get up to speed on the basics.

  8. Angel
    By Angel on 8 November, 2017

    I use passive voice all the time. I guess its my writing style. lol! On average I use it 25% on most of my articles. These tips help though and I appreciate them when reviewing and editing my content. Thank you!

    • Jesse van de Hulsbeek
      By Jesse van de Hulsbeek on 8 November, 2017

      Hi Angel, 25% certainly is a big number! Good to hear the tips help!

  9. Wayne Simmes
    By Wayne Simmes on 7 November, 2017

    I have to be honest, I read this entire page and I have no idea what you are trying to say.

    • Jesse van de Hulsbeek
      By Jesse van de Hulsbeek on 8 November, 2017

      Thanks for being honest, Wayne; many people struggle with grasping the concept of the passive voice. Maybe this article can be of help, it goes into the basics a bit more: https://www.ego4u.com/en/cram-up/grammar/passive

  10. Abdul Muneeb
    By Abdul Muneeb on 7 November, 2017

    Never think, that Passive voice affects this much!
    Thanks for the post Jesse!

    • Jesse van de Hulsbeek
      By Jesse van de Hulsbeek on 8 November, 2017

      You’re welcome, Abdul, thanks for the kind words!

  11. Prosperity Kenneth
    By Prosperity Kenneth on 7 November, 2017

    Thanks alot Jesse for these awesome session. This surely assisted my content writing skills. Thumbs up man!

    • Jesse van de Hulsbeek
      By Jesse van de Hulsbeek on 8 November, 2017

      Glad to be of help, Kenneth!

  12. AnzarShopping
    By AnzarShopping on 7 November, 2017

    Wow,
    some brilliant english related tips to make the content more engaging. Hopefully, it will also improve the user experience.

    • Jesse van de Hulsbeek
      By Jesse van de Hulsbeek on 9 November, 2017

      You can certainly improve user experience with clear and concise writing!

  13. seosem
    By seosem on 7 November, 2017

    the passive voice still plays an important role in the world of language, and in certain situations, it outperforms the active voice. For example, if you want to emphasize the direct object of the sentence instead of the subject, you may choose to use the passive voice. Journalists often apply this technique when writing headlines, mindful of the fact that most readers scan the words at the beginning of the headline first. The writer wants to communicate the most important information ASAP.
    We all know that Google rewards websites that consistently produce original, high-quality content (source). By ranking these websites higher, Google improves the user experience. After all, readers tend to prefer websites that provide useful, unique, and engaging information – no big surprise there! Unfortunately, pinning down the features that constitute high-quality writing content is difficult. As Cynthia Crossen states in the Wall Street Journal, “It’s impossible to define bad writing because no one would agree on a definition. We all know it when we see it, and we all see it subjectively” (source). We can, however, name some features that typically reduce the quality of writing: Grammar mistakes, Spelling mistakes, Punctuation mistakes, Overlong paragraphs, Vague language, Clichés

    • Jesse van de Hulsbeek
      By Jesse van de Hulsbeek on 8 November, 2017

      Yup, completely agree. As I said in the article, by all means use the passive if it beats the active alternative. Skilled writers can use it to their advantage to convey their message more effectively. However, when looking at web copy as a whole, a large majority of passive sentences do not fall into that category.

  14. Andy Strote
    By Andy Strote on 7 November, 2017

    It would make even more sense if you said, “J.F. Kennedy was killed in 1963 in Dallas, Texas by Lee Harvey Oswald.” Just saying….

  15. Himal Ghale
    By Himal Ghale on 7 November, 2017

    I learn so many things from the content writings, thank you for useful informations.

    • Jesse van de Hulsbeek
      By Jesse van de Hulsbeek on 7 November, 2017

      You’re welcome, I appreciate it!

  16. Garret
    By Garret on 7 November, 2017

    JFK was shot November 22, 1963 , not in 1969.
    Other than that what a great read.

    • Jesse van de Hulsbeek
      By Jesse van de Hulsbeek on 7 November, 2017

      Oh snap, thanks for the feedback, Garret!

    • Melina Reintjens
      By Melina Reintjens on 7 November, 2017

      Hi Garret, thanks for letting us know! I’ve corrected it, of course we want to get our history facts right! :)

  17. Tara Geissinger
    By Tara Geissinger on 7 November, 2017

    Examples of passive sentences rewritten the correct way would have been extremely helpful.


Check out our must read articles about Content SEO