One 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.
Effectively 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.