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October 14, 2019
Why I’m so passive about active voice

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Warning: this is mega word nerd stuff folks.

This is for those of you who subscribe to “Word of the day” emails from Merriam Webster.

Whose heart races with joy when your favourite copywriter slips up with a typo in their weekly email. Aha! They’re human after all.

The people playing Scrabble while friends watch GoT… Ok, too far. But you catch my drift.

I’m breaking down the myths about active and passive voice because the writing world has gone a little nutso on this one.

Why everyone loves active voice

Wherever you look these days, writing experts are urging you to engage your active voice.

It’ll make your copy more dynamic, they say.

Consumers will be clamouring to buy your products and services, they sing.

It’ll create more impact for your brand, they shriek.

Hell, it may even solve world peace.

But before we award active voice the Nobel Peace Prize, let’s first get to know it a little better.

What is active voice?

Ah, the million-dollar question everyone is too afraid to ask.

I’ve reviewed dozens of voice guidelines in my career. It’s made me realise that very few people really understand what active voice is.

It’s often mistaken for being the same as starting a sentence with an active verb (those words that encourage us to take action).

But active voice actually has to do with the order of a sentence.

(Hey! You there! Don’t fall asleep on me now. Stay with me, I promise it’ll be worth it.)

The parts of the sentence you need to identify

Subject: The thing or person performing the action.

Action verb: The thing being done.

Object: The thing or person receiving the action.

Let’s take this sentence: “Isabelle didn’t pay her bills.”

Subject: Isabelle

Action verb: (Not) paying

Object: Bills

So this sentence is written in active voice. It’s a clear, uncomplicated way to write. And certainly gives energy in plenty of scenarios because you can read it quickly.

However, let’s not overlook the significance of passive voice.

UX writers pay attention! This one’s for you.

The power of passive voice

Passive voice can be incredibly powerful when the subject of the sentence is the user and they’ve done something wrong.

Let’s take the same examples but make the subject “you”.

If you want to remind a user of your app or website that they haven’t paid their bill on time you could say it in active voice:

“You haven’t paid your bill.”

(Ouch! Am I in trouble?) In this case, it’s a very aggressive way of writing.

In scenarios like this, you don’t want to put the blame on the subject. They are your customers.

Passive voice leaps to the rescue.

What’s passive voice?

Glad you asked.

Passive voice reverses the sentence order. The object (bill) goes first followed by the verb (not paying) followed by the subject (you).

“Your bill hasn’t been paid by you.”

As you can see, the sentence is more convoluted when all 3 components are included in this way. Hence all the shrill objections to its use.

It slows the reader down.

However, using passive voice also means you often don’t have to mention the subject at all.

So the above example could simply be.

“Your bill hasn’t been paid.”

There’s no need to point out that it was “you” that didn’t pay the bill. It sounds less antagonising.

But I’m a copywriter, what about me?

Don’t worry passive voice can be your friend too. Here are three situations in which you would use passive voice.

1. Building suspense

“The eggs that were thrown at me.” (OMG, who threw them?)

2. Emphasising the object rather than the subject

“The shoes were worn out.” (It doesn’t matter who did the wearing)

3. If people, in general, are the subject

“Those cakes can be eaten, but these can’t” (Mmmmm, cake…)

Summary: Use active voice in most scenarios, but remember to use passive voice when the user has done something wrong and you need to correct them.

Your turn. Tell me are you a slavish devotee to the active voice, or do you dabble in passive?

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