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This post has been inspired by Yoast

Yoast is a bot that sits at the bottom of my editing screen. As I’m typing this, it’s judging my writing for readability and style. If you’re familiar with WordPress, you may know what I’m talking about.

At the moment, its judgemental face is green and smiling, but no doubt it will be red and scowling by the end of this post.

As a professional copywriter, I’m not a fan of bots that judge my writing — because they’re often wrong.

But one of the things Yoast screens for is passive voice. And that’s something you should know about.

What is passive voice?

Passive voice describes the way your writing is grammatically constructed. It’s most commonly used in formal communications — but not restricted to formal communications.

Passive voice can sound detached and disinterested, which is why Yoast flags it if you use it in your content. But, as I said previously, Yoast doesn’t always know best.

The opposite of passive voice, is active voice — and this is what’s recommended for writing content.

What is active voice?

Active voice also describes the way your writing is constructed. It’s used in informal communications, like content and fiction.

Active voice 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.

Passive voice vs active voice

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

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

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

*****

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

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

*****

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

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

*****

See the difference?

How to recognise passive voice

The simplest way to recognise passive voice in your own writing is to look at the order of the sentence and recognise 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.

Is it wrong to use passive voice?

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

But I’ve noticed that Yoast often flags it 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 and more complicated 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 charred furniture.

In this example, the 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!

As predicted, my 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.