The passive voice is frowned upon by grammarians. Grammarians prefer the active voice. In a sentence composed with the active voice, the subject completes an action: The girl read a book. In a sentence composed with the passive voice, the subject is acted upon: The book was read by the girl. When prepared in this way, sentences become more difficult to read and understand due to their length and lack of clarity. Although you don’t need to abandon the passive voice entirely, you should avoid it when possible. Not only will this improve your writing, but it may also boost your website’s search engine optimization (SEO).
The Passive Voice
Before we explore the reputation of the passive voice, its pros and cons, and how it can influence your SEO, let’s review the basics.
Passive vs. Active Writing
A sentence written with an active voice contains a subject completing an action. A sentence written with a passive voice makes the subject the receiver of an action. For example, in the sentences below, “dog” is the subject and “chewed” is the verb.
Passive: The bone was chewed by the dog.
Active: The dog chewed the bone.
Sometimes a sentence written in the passive voice eliminates the subject entirely, making it less clear. Who are we talking about? Who is performing the action? Why is the subject hiding? Unless you have already made the subject clear, this formatting can perplex or deceive the reader.
Passive: It is recommended that you ignore your website’s SEO.
Active: Your competitor recommends that you ignore your website’s SEO.
Typically shorter and more assertive, sentences written with an active voice require less brainpower to interpret. Although they sometimes lack the formality of sentences written with a passive voice, they provide more clarity.
Passive: My use of the passive voice was loathed by my readers.
Active: My readers adored my use of the active voice.
Passive sentences can also take responsibility for an action away from the subject. For this reason, hoping to avoid blame, many politicians and business leaders speak in the passive voice.
Passive: Mistakes were made and people were mistreated.
Active: My company made mistakes and mistreated people.
However, the passive voice still plays an important role in the world of language, and in certain situations, it outperforms the active voice. For example, if you want to emphasize the direct object of the sentence instead of the subject, you may choose to use the passive voice. Journalists often apply this technique when writing headlines, mindful of the fact that most readers scan the words at the beginning of the headline first. The writer wants to communicate the most important information ASAP.
In the following example, the poem is more important than the identity of the reader.
Passive: A poem by William Shakespeare will be read at the memorial service.
Active: John Smith will read a poem by William Shakespeare at the memorial service.
You can also use the passive voice when you don’t know the subject of a sentence. Instead of employing a vague subject, you can use the passive voice to avoid naming the subject at all.
Passive: My car was stolen!
Active: An unknown agent stole my car!
The Passive Voice and SEO
We all know that Google rewards websites that consistently produce original, high-quality content (source). By ranking these websites higher, Google improves the user experience. After all, readers tend to prefer websites that provide useful, unique, and engaging information – no big surprise there! Unfortunately, pinning down the features that constitute high-quality writing content is difficult. As Cynthia Crossen states in the Wall Street Journal, “It’s impossible to define bad writing because no one would agree on a definition. We all know it when we see it, and we all see it subjectively” (source). We can, however, name some features that typically reduce the quality of writing:
- Grammar mistakes
- Spelling mistakes
- Punctuation mistakes
- Overlong paragraphs
- Vague language
Although we can’t strictly define the elements of good writing, we can always strive to achieve it.
Explore the Yoast Plugin.
Yoast expanded its plugin several months ago to include content analysis, hoping to encourage users to improve the quality of their writing (and thus enhance their SEO). To assess readability, the plugin takes several different features into account, including all of the following:
- Sentence length
- Paragraph length
- Transition words
- Repetitions of the first word of a sentence
- The Flesch Reading Ease test
- Use of the passive voice
After scanning through your text in real time, the plugin will present you with a score: “good” (with a green symbol), “OK” (with an orange symbol), or “needs improvement” (with a red symbol). Within the plugin, each writing feature will receive a colored bullet as well, so that you can identify any features causing your overall score to plummet. In addition, you can click on the eye symbol next to some features (like passive voice and sentence length) to highlight the sentences within the text that contain the troublesome element.
Yoast recommends that writers avoid using the passive voice for more than 10% of sentences. This allows some leeway for sentences that benefit from the passive voice, but also encourages writers to write sentences in the active voice. Since most writing becomes more compelling in the active voice, the 10% rule should help most writers.
Focus on the Active Voice.
In most situations, we encourage you to avoid the passive voice. Seek out active verbs that more fully illustrate the point you wish to make, and clearly state each sentence’s subject. The Yoast plugin can help you identify and remedy problematic sentences.
Use the Passive Voice with Care.
Remember that some sentences benefit from the passive voice. So instead of avoiding it without question, use it with care. For example, if you wish to shift a sentence’s emphasis from the subject to the object, try the passive voice on for size. It may help you achieve your goal.
Don’t Follow the Plugin Blindly.
The Yoast plugin can help you improve the quality of your writing by pinpointing elements that can lower the quality of writing or reduce a text’s readability. However, remember that the plugin cannot actually read. As a computer program, its ability to assess a text’s quality is limited. So just because your webpage or blog post receives a “needs improvement” content rating from the Yoast plugin, that does not necessarily mean it contains atrocious writing or is difficult to read.
For example, when the Blue Coast Media Group tested a piece of writing that won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing as well as a National Magazine Award (“The Really Big One” by Kathryn Schulz), Yoast responded with a red light. It classified the piece “bad,” though it softened its ranking system soon after, replacing the rating “bad” with “needs improvement” (source). If an accomplished piece of writing receives the lowest possible ranking from Yoast, we must question the plugin’s capabilities. Unfortunately, the readability factors analyzed by Yoast do not always effectively assess a piece’s quality and readability.
In addition, the Yoast plugin produces some false positives. So if it incorrectly detects the passive voice within your text, don’t assume that your text lacks quality. Instead, check out this article by Yoast to figure out what is causing the problem.
A Matter of Life and Death
Still a passionate fan of the passive voice? If you won’t listen to me, at least hear out Mr. William Zinsser, who the New York Times deemed “an arbiter of good writing” (source). In his excellent book On Writing Well, Mr. Zinsser made this dire claim: “The difference between an active-verb style and a passive-verb style – in clarity and vigor – is the difference between life and death for a writer.”
Writing in the active voice enhances clarity, resulting in direct sentences with unambiguous meanings. While writers shouldn’t use the active voice exclusively, they should recognize that passive sentences can lower the quality of their writing and perhaps even hurt their SEO efforts. So take advantage of the Yoast plugin, carefully choose which sentences require the passive voice, and write with care and purpose.
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