People who give advice on copywriting often say, “Avoid using the passive voice.” This universal statement is not always correct but, more importantly, it is often confusing because most of us use passive speech naturally, without realising it.
Even articles about passive versus active writing often use passive phrasing. Sometimes the passive is a good technique. Politicians will say, “Mistakes were made,” when they should really be saying, “I made a mistake.”
Imagine Nike’s famous slogan written in the passive.
Dan Brotzel, a contributor to eConsultancy, argued that passive voice is misunderstood. He said, “At Emap we were issued with a little in-house guide called The Writer’s Bible, which talked about the ‘passive tense’ and included several ‘passive’ examples which were actually active voice.”
For example, some experts would say that “passive voice is misunderstood” is, in itself, passive. Others would say active. In passive, the verb is acting on the subject.
Dan Brotzel also argued that sentences are often hard to identify as passive or active, and he makes a good point, but some of his comments run counter to advice given by the Oxford English Dictionary.
The difference between active and passive verbs is simple.
- Active: The subject of the verb is doing the action.
- Passive: The subject undergoes the action rather than doing it.
Here are the Oxford Dictionaries examples.
- Active: France beat Brazil in the final.
- Passive: Brazil was beaten in the final by France.
- Active: Jack will take the matter forward.
- Passive: The matter will be taken forward by Jack.
McDonald’s slogan would be weaker in the passive voice.
Why you should avoid the passive voice in copywriting
Copywriting needs to be engaging. Especially these days where we prefer tabloid newspapers to broadsheets; Kindles to books; phones to desktop computers.
If you are writing for an audience that wants quick answers, why go round the houses and give them an essay? Conversely, people who are thoughtful and want to learn things may want more information, with a back story and supporting data, perhaps with a process.
No matter which audience you are trying to engage, the active voice is always better than the passive. Even world famous author Stephen King said so.
For me, the strongest argument against passive writing is that it often adds unnecessary words to a sentence. Why write “the results can be seen here” when you can say “see the results”?
Some tips from other writers on active and passive voice
Kimberly Joki on Grammarly blog:
“Sentence complexity is the basic trap that usually locks our writing into passive voice. Often our sentences need to be complex, due to a complicated thought or a stylistic choice. However, the passives can slip in whenever complexity becomes a necessity. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that active sentences have to be simple. They do not. This insidious illusion often summons the passive voice.”
Olivia Roat on Mainstreethost blog:
“I think the important thing to remember with passive voice is that it has a purpose. Sometimes that purpose serves your writing, and sometimes it doesn’t. When it doesn’t, passive sentences can suck the life out of your writing. And while passive sentences can fall flat, active sentences imbue writing with vigor, robustness, and sparkle.”
Henneke Duistermaat on Enchanting Marketing:
“A corporate tone of voice – generally recognized by the frequent use of complicated words, the appearance of particularly long sentences, and the passive voice – is difficult to read and boring for your readers.
“That’s 38 words. And it doesn’t work. To make your writing sparkle, you must cut long sentences and skip bland words. Reduce the number of adjectives and adverbs – especially words like really, obviously and generally. You can rewrite that horrible first sentence of this section like this.
“How do you recognize a corporate tone of voice? It’s boring as hell. Because it uses long sentences, difficult words, and the passive voice.
“That’s 24 words instead of 38; and only 8 words per sentence on average. And the message comes across much stronger.”
Plot to Punctuation blog:
“Passive voice hides your characters from view. It’s really that simple. Novels are about characters doing things. Passive voice shifts the focus of the writing away from the characters and onto the things they’re doing, or the things they’re using to do whatever it is they’re doing.”
Keli Gwyn on 12 weak words that can be turned into strong ones:
- Was – when used in passive sentences.
- Forms of be in sentences that aren’t passive.
- Vague uses of it.
- The combination of it and was.
- Vague uses of there.
- Adverbs used as modifiers in exposition and dialogue tags.
- Was used with –ing form of a verb.
- Simultaneous action using the –ing form of a verb when the two things can’t be done at the same time.
- Awkward had had construction.
- Multiple prepositions.
- Unnecessary prepositions.
Mignon Fogarty on QuickandDirtyTips.com:
“When you put sentences in passive voice, it’s easy to leave out the person or thing doing the action. For example, ‘Amy is loved,’ is passive. The problem with that sentence is that you don’t know who loves Amy.
“Politicians often use passive voice to intentionally obscure the idea of who is taking the action. Ronald Reagan famously said, ‘Mistakes were made,’ when referring to the Iran-Contra scandal. Businesses sometimes use passive voice. It sounds better to write, ‘Your electricity will be shut off,’ than ‘We, the electric company, will be shutting off your power.’”
Dr Ewa Dabrowska on Science Daily:
“Our results show that a proportion of people with low educational attainment make errors with understanding the passive, and it appears that this and other important areas of core grammar may not be fully mastered by some speakers, even by adulthood.
“These findings could have a number of implications. “If a significant proportion of the population does not understand passive sentences, then notices and other forms of written information may have to be rewritten and literacy strategies changed.”
Mark Nichol on Daily Writing Tips:
“The solution is simple: Give the focal point of the sentence its due — ‘(noun) (verb) (noun),’ and demote the false subject to the back of the line. Note that not every passive construction is evil — sometimes what seems to be the false subject is worthy of prominence — but a preponderance of passive constructions leads to a wearying read.”
Phil Jamieson on ProofreadNow.com:
“‘You are loved.’ Writing that in a valentine to your beloved instead of ‘I love you’ likely will have a similar effect as giving a bouquet of roses with petals that are curling and turning brown — the thought may be there, but the desired effect loses some of its impact.
“That’s what can happen with passive voice. Who is actually doing the action becomes hazy. Sometimes you want or need the subject to be ambiguous or want to emphasize the object, in which case passive constructions make sense.
“But too often, writers use passive voice unconsciously, leading to awkward, vague or bloated sentences that make the meaning harder to understand. Passive voice can also convey a sense of hedging — probably not the best message to send in a valentine.”
If Apple were to think differently.
Conversely, the Specsavers slogan works like this because it matches the context. This is not really passive but perfect past tense. They could be more direct and say, “Go to Specsavers,” but that would lose the nuance of the ad’s meaning.
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