The Dreaded Passive Voice: Why Shame Should Be Felt When Passive Bombs Are Dropped

Andy Newbom
Andy Newbom Freelance Writer and Marketing Strategist, Freelance Writer

Posted on May 5th 2014

The Dreaded Passive Voice: Why Shame Should Be Felt When Passive Bombs Are Dropped

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The dreaded passive voice. It sucks the life out of your writing. If you want to understand why the passive voice is so horrible listen to a defendant in a murder case explain what happened: “There was a struggle. A shot was fired and she got hurt.” What he meant to say was: “I was beating her up, I got mad and shot her and killed her.” Much clearer.

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I can not stand the passive voice (although the passive-aggressive voice really pisses me off.) It robs your words of power, strips them of meaning and makes you a captain mealy-mouth. However it is hard to avoid it when writing. When writing it often feels like the way to sound all academic and ‘writerly.’ The passive voice makes sentences much harder to read and understand. That’s exactly why lawyers love it so much. You can say something without actually saying it, and too many blogs already excel at saying something without saying anything. A lot of research has shown that most people find it easier to read text that is in active rather than passive voice.

Here is a quick and dirty overview from Quick and dirty tips on passive and active voice:

  • Content written in active voice is more engaging, less boring.
  • In active voice, the subject is a do-er or be-er, where they are not in passive. Instead the subject is the receiver.
  • Your motto should be “get up and take charge!” (passive)
  • Make your motto “get up and take charge!” (active)
  • Sentences are more concise and less wordy.
  • Statements are more authoritative and persuasive

 

Zen Optimise shared this Quick (and pain-free) grammar lesson

The active voice puts the subject (the person or group that performs an action) up front.

The passive voice puts the object (the target of the action) up front.

Here are a couple of simple examples:

  • Active voice: Jane kicked the ball.
  • Passive voice: The ball was kicked by Jane.
  • Active voice: Google released a new update.
  • Passive voice: A new updated was released by Google.

The passive voice can sound academic and formal; this isn’t usually the best tone to adopt in a blog post. It can also be distancing, and sometimes confusing. By using the active voice, you make your content more engaging for the reader – and easier to take in.

A few of my favorite tools for causing the passive voice to be killed. (AKA Killing the Passive Voice):

Atomic Reach. I use the Atomic Reach plugin and platform on my blog and other blogs I manage. It does a bang-up job of catching my passive voice mistakes and highlighting them BEFORE I publish. It also has some nifty spell check and overall audience fit algorithms that improve your writing. I highly recommend installing their plugin on your blog. it’s the easiest way to catch and kill the dreaded passive voice before it corrupts your article. They also have asweet guide to help users with active/passive voice.

here is an example of Atomic Reach catching these passive voices bombs.

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Grammarly. Grammarly is an automated proofreader online service. It checks more than 250 grammar rules. Their value prop is simple:

Grammarly provides another set of eyes to help perfect your writing. Grammarly’s patent-pending grammar checking technology reviews and improves your text, correcting grammar, spelling, word choice and style mistakes with unmatched accuracy. Give Grammarly 60 seconds and see what pesky grammar errors you missed in your text!

I used them on this post! Another resource is this well done and simple guide by Purdue on ways to spot and kill passive voice.

What are some of the worst examples of passive voice that you have read? Share them here so we can laugh mercilessly at them.

Andy Newbom

Andy Newbom

Freelance Writer and Marketing Strategist, Freelance Writer

A Craft beer and Craft Coffee Viking. With over 20 years of business, leadership, and marketing experience ranging from high-tech B2B to high-touch B2C, Andy has in-depth experience and expertise in social, mobile and cloud systems, integrated content marketing and marketing strategies. Andy’s talent is in creating innovative solutions to complex business problems that deliver results. He is also a Technorati contributing writer covering Social and Marketing Strategy Follow him at AndyNewbom.com | Twitter | LinkedIn | Google+

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Comments

A lot of writing has been done by me and my recommendations are that the Passive voice can be useful and appealing too. Even in the above examples it has been noticed by me that glaring grammatical ererors were overlooked by you in your quest to get rid of the Passive voice. "A new updated" phrase was used by you in your example, but it was not clear to some what "updated" meant and how it has been used in this instance. Let us not be rid of the Passive Voice as it is a legitimate form of Grammar and humanity has been best served by its use in great prose and verse. When the Passive voice is removed, English will lose much of its charm and our lives will become dull and meaningless thanks to "Stunk and White" and their narrow-minded elements of style.

I once worked for an editor who threatened to fire anyone on staff who used the passive voice. Fortunately, he himself was fired before the staff mutinied. Arbitrary rules about grammar are just that: arbitrary.

I had a professor in college who was a nazi about the passive voice. I can't remember his name, but I definitely remember his take on the passive voice. He basically felt that using the passive voice was cowardly because you didn't say who did the action defined by the verb. I do use it occassionally, but his rule is drilled deep in my subconscious and I only use it by explicitly deciding to do so.