Writer’s Insights: What Is the Passive Voice?

Writer’s Insights: What Is the Passive Voice?

I have a lot of fun with Yoast. For those of you who don’t know, Yoast is a tool that checks your search engine optimization (SEO) and the reading level of your writing. It has a few hiccups, like anything automated, but I think my favorite thing is that it measures (or tries to) the number of instances in your writing where you use the passive voice.

The problem? Yoast doesn’t know what the hell the passive voice is. Very few people do. Yet everyone says we should avoid it. (You can thank Strunk and White for the dictum against it–even though they didn’t know what the fuck it was either.)

Defining Passive Voice

So what is the passive voice? The subject of your sentence isn’t actually doing the work of the sentence. It’s not taking action. “We sold the house” is active. We are the subject, we are doing the selling. The house is an object, which we (the subject) are acting upon.

This conforms to English’s sentence order rules: subject-verb-object. Passive voice essentially uses the usual construction (noun-verb-noun), but it flips the position of the subject and object. Objects appear at the beginning of the sentence, where we usually identify the subject. The actual subject – the doers of the action – appear at the end of the sentence, in the object position.

“The house was sold by us” is a passive sentence. A house can’t complete the action in this case (it can’t sell itself), even though it’s in the subject position. This is passive. The subject of the sentence is being acted upon, rather than acting of its own accord.

Advantages of Active Voice

“We sold the house” is much more direct. It takes fewer words, it’s less awkward to say, and it just sounds better than “the house was sold by us.” Unless a situation really calls for the passive voice, it’s better not to use it. That’s solid enough advice.

But, as I said, hardly anyone can identify it. Yoast is particularly bad at recognizing it. So, let’s go through some of my writing and identify where Yoast thinks I’m using passive voice–and what we can do to fix it.

Examples of Passive Voice

Right within this post, there are examples of passive voice. Or at least what Yoast thinks are examples of passive voice.

“The house was sold by us” is a passive sentence.

I’d hope my example of the passive voice is a passive sentence. Otherwise, I’d be in the same boat as Strunk and White.

The subject of the sentence is being acted upon, rather than acting of its own accord.

You can identify this sentence as the passive voice from the verb construction. If something is “being acted upon,” it’s an object. A subject would be doing the action.

It takes fewer words, it’s less awkward to say, and it just sounds better than “the house was sold by us.”

I’m honestly not sure what Yoast’s problem with this sentence is. “It,” perhaps? Any which way, this sentence isn’t passive. “It” is the subject in these subclause constructions. It takes, it is, and it sounds. Those are all direct actions.

Now, you might argue that’s passive construction because “it” is vague. I could easily substitute more direct action. For example, I could write, “I need fewer words to write the first sentence.” “I” is clearly the subject and clearly completing the identified action.

Same goes for “it’s less awkward to say.” I could write something like “I find it easier to say.” Finally, “it sounds better” could become something like “English speakers agree it sounds better.”

Yet Yoast doesn’t always identify subject-completing-action as being active, even though that’s literally the definition of the active voice. So long as the subject is completing the action, it’s active voice.

The Trick to Finding Passive Voice

Yoast is a robot. As a result, it can only do what it’s programmed to do. Its understanding of what constitutes “passive voice” is necessarily constrained by whoever programmed it and whatever it was programmed with.

Clearly, it uses some rules to determine what’s passive construction and what’s not. One rule is the verb construction I pointed out earlier: verb + helper verb + verb. “Is being sold” is a good clue the construction is passive. It’s a good clue the noun in the subject position isn’t actually doing the action. It’s being acted upon.

The most obvious test is whether the noun in the subject position is actually doing the work of the subject. If the “subject” isn’t completing the action, it’s not likely a subject. It’s an object. This switcheroo is what makes the sentence passive.

Who Cares?

A more pertinent question arises from all this talk: Who cares?

The passive voice is a valid construction in English. So what if you use it?

In “editing school,” we’re taught to root it out. The most common reason is passive voice just makes for wordier sentences. They can be awkward, horrific constructions. In many cases, it’s easier to use the active voice!

Using the active voice also assists the reader. It puts the focus in the right place. Passive voice deflects, turning attention to the object. Do we really care if the house is being sold? Or are we more concerned about who is doing the selling?

Active constructions are also easier to comprehend. So you have focus in the right place and fewer words, leading to better comprehension.

Finally, passive voice is tiring. It makes us work harder as readers. After a while, it’s tedious.

What to Do?

In sum, you should look for passive constructions in your writing. Minimize them. Making an effort to use active voice isn’t usually misguided.

Just … maybe don’t listen to Yoast about what is and isn’t passive voice.

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