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The passive voice: What is it and how to avoid it?

Do you know what the passive voice is and why you should avoid it in most cases? In the readability analysis in our Yoast SEO plugin, we recommend using the passive voice in a maximum of 10% of your sentences. In this post, we’ll answer a couple of questions about the passive voice and the assessment in our plugin.

Table of contents

Firstly, we’ll explain what it is. Then, we’ll clarify why it’s best to avoid passive voice in your copy. After that, we’ll discuss what the Yoast SEO passive voice check does, and how you can avoid using it in your copy. Finally, we’ll describe some situations in which using it makes perfect sense. 

Having an orange or red bullet for the passive voice check in Yoast SEO? Here’s what this check does and how to turn that bullet green.

What is the passive voice?

The passive voice is a grammatical construction. The easiest way to explain it 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).

WordMomhuggedme
Semantic functionactordirect verb receiver

In the passive voice, the actor and receiver are switched around. The receiver then becomes the grammatical subject. Note that the meaning of the sentence stays the same, the only difference is the word order.

WordIwas huggedby mom
Semantic functionreceiverdirect verbactor

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 you 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.

1. It is wordy

Firstly, passive sentences are wordy. The passive alternative to an active sentence is simply longer. For example, 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 form in your text, this can really add up.

2. The sentence structure is complex

Secondly, 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 form 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 does the Yoast SEO passive voice check do?

The readability analysis in the Yoast SEO plugin comes with a passive voice assessment, which checks whether the number of sentences containing passive voice exceeds the recommended maximum amount. You’ll get a green bullet if less than 10% of your sentences have passive voice. It’ll turn red if you go over 15%. Passive voice makes your writing more distant, and your message less clear. So, try to write in an active voice — it will make your writing much stronger!

Yoast SEO passive voice assessment
The passive voice assessment in the Yoast SEO readability analysis

How to use less passive voice in your copy

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.

TensePassive voiceActive    alternative  
Present simpleA book is bought by me.buy a book.
Present simple continuousA book is being bought by me.am buying a book.
Present perfectA book has been bought by me.have bought a book.
Past simpleA book was bought by me.bought a book.
Past simple continuousA book was being bought by me.was buying a book.
Past perfectA book had been bought by me.had bought a book.
FutureA book will be written by me.will write a book.
Future perfectA book will have been written by me.will have written a book.

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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. To illustrate this, 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.

Conclusion

In most cases, active sentences are easier to understand than passive sentences. After writing your text, scan it for passive voice constructions. Then, 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