A Guide To Using The Active Voice Rather Than The Passive Voice « The Mightier Pen's Blog

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A Guide To Using The Active Voice Rather Than The Passive Voice

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A little boy kissing a little girlOne of the things which you should avoid when creating content for websites, writing blog posts or developing any other web content is the passive voice. It’s often been said that the passive voice is weak, and research suggests that some people find it harder to understand than the active voice.

But whilst the recommendation is to write in the active voice rather than the passive voice, what exactly does this mean in real, practical terms which are easy to understand? Let me explain the difference, using examples, and hopefully it should be easy to see why the passive voice should be avoided where possible, and replaced instead by the active voice.

In order to understand both the active and passive voice it’s important to understand a basic principle of grammar – the difference between the object and the subject in a sentence. Basically the object is having something done to it, whereas the subject is the person doing the action. Let’s see a couple of examples:

  • Example 1: John kissed Jane.

Here John is the one doing the action, so he is the subject. Jane is the one to whom the action is being done, and so she is the object.

  • Example 2: The tree fell on the car.

In this case the tree is the one doing the action, and so is the subject. The car is the one on the receiving end of that action, and so is the object.

Remember: Subjects subject objects to actions.

Once you understand this principle of grammar, it’s then fairly easy to understand the difference between the active and passive voices.

When using the active voice you make sure that the subject of the sentence is the one doing the action. You can see in both of the examples above, this is exactly what’s happening, and it makes sense.


So what’s the passive voice then? In sentences written in the passive voice the object is effectively promoted to the rank of subject. In other words, the sentence is no longer about what the subject is doing, but about what is happening to the object.

Let me clarify by re-writing those two examples above using the passive voice:

  • Example 1: Jane was kissed by John

You see here that the sentence is clearly about what is happening to Jane, even though Jane isn’t actively doing anything.

  • Example 2: The car was fallen on by the tree.

Again, this sentence is focussing on what’s happening to the car, even though the car didn’t do anything.

A tree falling onto a carEffectively there are two main problems with writing web content in the passive voice. First of all, it’s longwinded and sometimes difficult to follow easily. Writing for the web means writing for an audience which is constantly one mouse click away from dumping you for your competitor. You simply can’t afford to be confusing or convoluted.

The second problem is that it seems as though nothing is really happening. We don’t bond with the subject of the sentence, or feel actively part of the scene. If a tree crashes down on top of a car we can see it clearly, and perhaps even hear the crunching and smashing of the metal, wood and glass. But if we say that ‘the car was fallen on by the tree’ we tend to visualise a much weaker scene which doesn’t have the same effect at all, and doesn’t grab our attention. Visually it’s a picture quickly dismissed and forgotten.

So when writing web content such as SEO articles it’s important to make sure that you write using the active voice. Think about what you are writing about, identify the subjects of your sentences and make sure that they’re the ones taking action.

Remember, the ground doesn’t get fallen on – people fall. Cups of coffee don’t get drunk, people drink them, and hyperlinks don’t get clicked, people click them.



Post written by Justin Arnold. See his Google+ profile.
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Discussion

  1. AG DeHart  June 10, 2012

    Good point, Justin! I think that as we write, we often do so as though we were speaking, and this can lead to using the passive voice more than we should. It’s very important to keep this in mind! Thanks! -AG

    (reply)
    • Justin Arnold  June 26, 2012

      Absolutely correct. Whilst naturally spoken language is fine for dialogue the problem comes when writing non-dialogue text, whilst still ‘hearing’ the words in our head. This is where close and careful editing is essential.

      (reply)
  2. Shirley Ford  June 26, 2012

    An interesting article on passive writing. Every time I have a go at blogging my mind goes blank, then an idea comes to me, but nobody ever reads my blogs. The more I read about blogging and article writing, the more confused I get and just want to curl up and die! There has to be a knack to all this stuff, we either have it or we dont.

    (reply)
    • Justin Arnold  June 26, 2012

      As to either having it or not, I would partly agree, but only partly. Much of the skill of writing is developed over time with practice and dedication. I think that what marks a writer out is not someone who necessarily has a gift for writing, but who has an obsession for trying to write, and to improve. I’m sorry to hear you feel nobody reads your blog – perhaps if you were to try posting more often, even shorter posts, asking questions through your blog, promoting it through Twitter and your website this might help a little?

      (reply)
  3. dieta  September 19, 2012

    The passive voice tends to make sentences longer, harder to grasp, and weaker, because the most important information—the actor and the action—is not leading the sentence.

    (reply)
  4. shweta  July 26, 2013

    It seems that whatever you write, you write for me. Everything relates to the issues I am facing. Thanks again for a short lesson. Apart from articles on SEO and other technical topics, posts on English language are very useful.

    (reply)

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