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Active vs. Passive Voice

Know the difference between active vs. passive voice

In content marketing, you can’t approach your audience with reservations. If you’re uncertain or lacking confidence in your product, business, or marketing, that sentiment can show in a number of ways — including passive voice writing. Active vs. passive voice is a vital distinction in polishing your sales and lead-generating copy. Take a look at what these two styles are, how they work differently, and when to use one or the other.

What Is Active Voice?

Image via Flickr by LaVladina

First, let’s outline a few basic terms so that no one gets left behind:

  • Subject: the noun (person, place, or thing) in the sentence that is actually doing something.
  • Verb: the word indicating an action. “We visit.” In this sentence, “we” is the subject and “visit” is the verb.
  • Direct Object: the noun in the sentence that is the recipient of the subject’s action. “We visit Mayor Jones.” “Mayor Jones” is the direct object because he is the person being visited.

What is active voice? It’s ordering a sentence in the most natural way — the method we described above. The sentence is ordered with the subject, verb, and direct object all appearing in that exact order:

Charlie served the dinner.

What Is Passive Voice?

In contrast with active voice, passive voice is the reverse concept: The order of the sentence follows the format of direct object, verb, and subject. You can often identify passive voice subconsciously by noticing the word “by” before the subject, although that word usage is not a guarantee. Below is the sentence from our earlier example in passive voice form.

The dinner was served by Charlie.

Let’s take a look at a few other examples, with a bit more meat to each sentence so that you can recognize the differences in tone.

Selling a product:

Customers adore our engaging games. — Active

Our engaging games are adored by customers. — Passive

Emphasizing staff training:

Every employee has passed an extensive training process. — Active

An extensive training process has been passed by every employee. — Passive

Describing service benefits:

We will get you the maximum return on investment. — Active

The maximum return on investment will be gotten for you by us. — Passive

That last one hopefully shows how messy switching to passive voice can get, turning an otherwise simple and concise idea into something unwieldy. Active voice tends to be strongly encouraged in English grammar classes, and active voice is generally considered ideal in most persuasive, creative, and professional writing.

Why Is Active Voice More Effective?

In the persuasive writing style of content marketing, you often want to end on the desirable point meant to inspire some type of action, such as buying a product. Consider the following sentence: “Customers adore our engaging games.” The sentence ends with the most important word for the argument “games.” Psychologically, this arrangement is more effective than the passive version, which ends with “customers.” The text is slightly awkward because readers are having a mirror pushed in front of them instead of being shown an appealing product.

When Is It OK to Use Passive Voice?

Passive voice is often used and welcomed in academic writing, where the sheer complexity of certain ideas can make it worthwhile to loop around and make it clear what the subject is by the end. However, chances are that you’re looking to make great content for your business, not get published in a journal. You need snappy, energetic copy that builds momentum toward your calls to action. Passive voice can also make sentences feel a little indecisive or watered down, which is not what you’d want when you are appealing to emotion, such as on a sales page.

However, passive voice focuses on the action being done, and this idea isn’t inherently wrong. The issue is that English sentences, unlike those of related languages, are typically expected to begin with the subject and end with direct objects and prepositions. However, sometimes it’s important to place emphasis on the action being done, instead of the subject. For example:

Lack of clarity on the subject:

The Grand Diamond was mysteriously stolen. — Passive

Someone mysteriously stole the Grand Diamond. — Active

You may get different opinions here, but the passive voice sentence still delivers the same information, only with emphasis on the Grand Diamond (direct object). Let’s suppose this sentence is on the back of a board game about finding who stole this diamond, and “Grand Diamond” may even be part of the name. In such a case, the value of branding predicates that the passive version better outlines the basis of the game.

The subject needs to be distinguished:

Any other employee would have been fine. However, I was called to the office by Edna. — Passive

Any other employee would have been fine. However, Edna called me to the office. — Active

It’s clear that the subject being Edna, and not someone else, is a big deal, more so than the mere fact of being called to the office. When it’s important to explain to someone that the subject matters, compared to other possibilities, passive voice can be effective.

When concealing the subject is less abrasive:

If the contract terms are broken, penalty fees may have to be charged. — Passive

If you break the contract terms, we may have to charge you penalty fees. — Active

You can see a common disadvantage of active voice: Since it’s so direct, it can sometimes be taken as forceful or intimidating. When dealing with negative subjects, you may upset or turn off fewer potential customers by wording discussions of penalties or complications in a passive way.

Hopefully, this explanation has made the difference between active vs. passive voice clear. Active voice matters because it injects more energy into your content and smoothly leads a potential customer toward clicking, buying, and other actions. That said, you don’t need to apply it universally. Sometimes passive voice has its place, although it may take experience to figure out where active vs. passive voice applies in your content.

About the author

Shane Hall