A website isn’t a thesis, so ditch the passive voice

Using too much passive voice on your website will absolutely kill your content. Yep, you heard me. Stone. Dead.

If you had a tertiary education that involved essay writing, you would’ve been encouraged—no, instructed—to write in passive voice. You probably lost marks if you didn’t. We acknowledge that it has its place in academia, science and the legal profession, but filling your website with copy written in passive voice will quickly send your visitors scurrying.

What the *@&# are you talking about? Examples, please!

Without trying to sound cute, passive voice is the opposite of active voice. It’s a way of ordering a sentence so that the subject becomes the object. As an example:

The boy smiled at the dog. (Active)
In this sentence, the boy is the subject. He’s the active one; the one who’s doing something. The dog is the object. It’s not doing anything; it’s having something done to it.

Contrast that with this:

The dog was smiled at by the boy. (Passive)
Although the boy is still the one smiling and the dog is still the one doing nothing much, the dog has become the focus of the sentence.

Here’s another.

Jake burnt the dinner because he was daydreaming. (Active)
The dinner was burnt by Jake because he was daydreaming. (Passive)

In the first sentence, the emphasis is on Jake. He’s the subject and the dinner is the object.

In the second sentence, the emphasis is on the dinner. It becomes the subject of the sentence, even though Jake’s still the one doing all the damage.

So what about this one: Because he was daydreaming, Jake burnt the dinner.

That’s active voice because Jake is still the subject of the sentence.

Now it’s your turn: a wee exercise

See if you can correctly identify whether the following sentences are written in active or passive voice (answers at the end of the post). Remember to look for the person or group actively doing something–they’re the subject. If they’re at the end of the sentence, it’s written in passive voice.

These examples are all from the Radio New Zealand website.

  1. Māori involved in freshwater disputes are welcoming the prospect of some commercial use royalties going to resolve treaty claims.
  2. An application to mine millions of tonnes of iron sand off South Taranaki has been approved by the Environmental Protection Authority.
  3. The building industry is not changing fast enough in the face of new technology – like prefabricated skyscrapers and brick-laying robots – its leaders have been told.
  4. Mr Miller said a robot, invented in Perth, which lays bricks eight times faster than a person, could be on sale in New Zealand by the end of the year.
  5. Twenty tonnes of insecticide-tainted eggs have been sold in Denmark, the country’s food safety authority says.

What’s wrong with using passive voice?

1. It slows down reading and comprehension

Passive voice is wordier than its active voice counterpart. And it takes longer for readers to comprehend the meaning of the sentence because they have to turn it around in their heads—almost like mentally translating another language. It’s fine to use passive voice occasionally but it becomes a real issue when you use it a lot, especially in a digital format. People don’t read digital content (unless it’s really scintillating, like this stuff); they scan it. So they don’t have a lot of patience with anything that holds them up. Result: high bounce rate.

2. It distances you from your reader

Passive voice is authoritative and objective. It removes personality and emotion from writing. That’s why it’s so often used in academia, science, the law and journalism—wherever an objective rendering of the facts is important. It’s the language of the experiment, the report and the testimony. Which is all very well in the courtroom but not a great idea for most business websites, where it’s important to connect with your audience.

You should aim to bring people in close with your content, not hold them at arm’s length.

3. It can be boring

Wordy + colourless + hard work to understand = boring. Especially in a digital format.

Is it ever okay to use passive voice?

Yes, of course. Variety is a hallmark of good writing and there are times when passive voice has far more impact than its active counterpart.

Use it when:

  • The subject of a sentence is less important than the object:
    • The Mona Lisa was stolen by two masked men.
  • You want to emphasise the action and who or what it affected:
    • Twenty civilians were killed by the explosion.
  • You don’t know who or what the subject is:
    • The woman had been murdered.
  • You are stating a fact:
    • The roads were closed due to flooding.
  • You’re channelling Shakespeare:
    • Now is the winter of our discontent
    • Made glorious summer by this sun of York

So yes, do use it. Just not all the time!

How can I check if I’m writing too much in passive voice?

The Yoast SEO plugin for WordPress analyses your writing’s readability as well as keyword optimisation. It will tell you when your use of passive voice exceeds 10% and highlight the offending sentences (and yeah, it’s going utterly ballistic on this blog post).

Online grammar checkers include Grammarly and Passive Voice Detector (now with zombies!). They’re both free but Grammarly has a premium desktop version as well.

If you want to go top-shelf, StyleWriter is professional writing and editing software that includes American, British and Australian English versions. This is one for serious writers—StyleWriter can proof-read a 10,000 word document in 12 seconds!

At the budget end, even Microsoft Word will pick up on simple passive voice sentences if your settings allow it.

The end of the post about passive voice is to be found here

So here’s the take-home message: use passive voice sparingly so it enhances your writing instead of smothering it. And if you find any great examples of passive voice pomposity in your digital voyages, please post them below in the comments. We’d love to see them.


Answers to exercise

  1. Active
  2. Passive
  3. Passive
  4. Active
  5. Passive

Niki Morrell

Niki is the creative director of Bold Communications and co-founder of Good Honest Content. A former radio host with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, she's been helping Kiwi and Aussie businesses with content marketing and strategy since 2012.

1 thought on “A website isn’t a thesis, so ditch the passive voice”

  1. Love the “by zombies” test in the passive voice detector you linked to – that’s a great (and hilarious) illustration of it.

    Here’s a sentence from our website that we tested it on – “The images are all the right proportion and just need to be reduced in size so they will load quickly and keep the page load time down”

    It’s just so much better with zombies though – “The images are all the right proportion and just need to be reduced by zombies in size so they will load quickly and keep the page load time down”

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