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This post has been inspired by Yoast

Yoast is a bot that sits at the bottom of my editing screen. And I hate it.

If you have a WordPress website, you might know what I’m talking about.

As I’m typing this, Yoast is judging my writing for readability and style. If it thinks I’m writing well, its face will be green and smiling. But if I do too many of the things it’s been programmed not to like, it will turn red and start scowling.

One of the things Yoast doesn’t like is passive voice. And it will always tell me I should be using active voice instead.

The problem is, Yoast doesn’t understand the difference between active and passive voice.

And therein lies the problem.

If you want to understand the difference, keep reading and I’ll explain everything.

Active voice and passive voice

Active voice and passive voice are both used to describe the way your sentences are written.

We’ll come to that shortly, but first let’s look at each one.

What is active voice?

Active voice is mainly used in informal communications, like content and fiction.

It sounds engaged and involved, which means it’s more likely to engage and involve your audience. It can also be clearer than passive voice — but not always.

What is passive voice?

Passive voice is most commonly used in formal communications — but is not restricted to formal communications.

It can sound detached and distant, which is why Yoast doesn’t like it. But there are times when passive voice is the correct option — even in informal communications.

The difference between active and passive voice

To really appreciate the difference between active and passive voice, you need to see it in action — so let’s look at some examples.

ACTIVE (PAST)
Our design team completed the project and delivered it on time.

PASSIVE (PAST)
The project was completed and delivered on time by our design team.

*****

ACTIVE (PRESENT)
Nita, our marketing assistant, writes and publishes the blog.

PASSIVE (PRESENT)
The blog is written and published by Nita, our marketing assistant.

*****

ACTIVE (FUTURE)
David understands the numbers and will write the report.

PASSIVE (FUTURE)
The report will be written by David, who has an understanding of the numbers.

*****

See the difference?

How to recognise passive voice

The simplest way to spot passive voice in your own writing is to look at the way your sentences are written and identify two things:

  1. The doer, whoever or whatever that might be
  2. The thing that’s been/is being/is going to be done.

In active voice, number 1 appears first in the sentence.

In passive voice, number 2 appears first in the sentence.

Passive example 1: The goldfish bowl was knocked over.

This sentence doesn’t say who or what knocked the goldfish bowl over. When there’s no doer, the sentence is automatically passive.

Passive example 2: The goldfish bowl was knocked over by the cat.

This sentence is also passive, because the thing that has been done (knocking over the goldfish bowl) comes before the doer (the cat).

Active example: The cat knocked over the goldfish bowl.

To change a passive sentence to active voice, we need to rewrite it so the doer comes before the thing they’ve done. But that may not always be the right thing to do.

Is it wrong to use passive voice?

It’s not wrong to use passive voice. Let’s be clear about that.

When Yoast flags it, it’s often without any understanding of the subject or context.

There are some occasions where passive voice may be preferable.

When passive voice might be better

1. When we don’t know who the doer is

Passive example:
The house had been robbed.

As opposed to:
Someone had robbed the house.

In this example, adding a doer to the sentence doesn’t give us any more information.

2. When the doer is obvious or has already been mentioned

Passive example:
The prisoner was escorted back to her cell

As opposed to:
The prison warden escorted the prisoner back to her cell

In this case, it’s obvious that the person doing the escorting is the prison warden. Adding the doer makes the sentence longer than it needs to be.

3. When the doer is not important

Passive example:
Mike had been dropped off.

As opposed to:
Someone had dropped Mike off.

In this example, we’re talking about how Mike came to be there. Whoever dropped him off is not significant to the story, so they don’t need a mention.

4. When the doers are multiple non-specific people

Passive example:
The files can be downloaded from the website.

As opposed to:
Anyone can download the files from the website.

In this case, the doers could be anyone, so mentioning who they are adds no information or value.

5. When we want to emphasise the thing that’s been done

Passive example:
Lucy’s charred furniture had been damaged in a house fire.

As opposed to:
A house fire had damaged Lucy’s furniture.

In this example, the charred furniture is more important to the story than the fire, so we lead with that.

6. When active voice just doesn’t sound right

Passive example:
The pasta dish is topped with grated parmesan.

As opposed to:
Grated parmesan tops the pasta dish.

The active version of this sentence isn’t wrong, but it’s not the way we would normally say it.

Yoast is a guide — not a guru!

Yoast’s readability face is now red and scowling. 😡

This happens to me far more than you might expect. It’s not because I’m a bad writer — I make my living writing words — but because it’s not sophisticated enough to fully understand how English language works.

By all means use it as a guide, but use your own common sense, too.

Do you need help to create compelling content?

I’m a professional copywriter and content writer, based in Leicester UK.

Not everyone has the time, skills or inclination to write their own content — and that’s where I can help.

You can find out more about my content writing service in the main part of my website.

And if you’d like someone to write your regular blog articles for you, or edit the ones you’ve written yourself, please get in touch.