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September 27, 2018 (Updated: March 8, 2023)
Were you the kid in school who questioned why you needed English class? Then you grew up to work in business or marketing and realized why it was one of the core classes throughout education? It’s okay to need a refresher to make your content the best it can be. Today, we’re looking at the English language concept of active and passive voice. Learn how it affects content marketing with topics like:
You have to understand certain parts of speech before you jump into learning about active and passive voice. These pieces serve as the building blocks for sentences. They also play a crucial role in understanding if you’ve written an active or passive sentence. Some key parts of speech include:
The subject of a sentence is the person, place, or thing performing the action. It tells who or what the sentence is about. Sentences have simple and compound subjects. For example, in the sentence Joe ate lunch, Joe is a simple subject. But if you changed the sentence to read Joe and Kamala ate lunch, Joe and Kalama are both the subject, making it compound. Subjects usually contain nouns, pronouns, and modifying words and phrases.
The predicate is the action word or phrase within a sentence. Like the subject, you can have a simple or compound predicate. You can identify a compound predicate if there are two action words in the sentence connected by the words “and” or “or.” It contains the verb or verb phrase and any modifiers.
A direct object is the person, place, or thing in the sentence that receives the action. Most are nouns or pronouns. Find the direct object by asking, “what?” For example, in the sentence She takes the photo, the direct object is “photo.” If you ask “She takes what?” the word “photo” answers the question.
The indirect object tells who the subject is doing the action for. Like the direct object, most are nouns and pronouns. You can find the indirect object by asking “who?” or “for whom?” In the sentence, He prints his sister a picture, the indirect object is “sister” because it answers the question “for whom.”
The subject complement renames or describes the subject of the sentence. It’s usually a noun, pronoun, or adjective. Subject complements match with linking verbs, often a form of the verb “to be.” In the sentence, She is an excellent mother, the word “mother” is the subject complement because it tells us who “she,” the subject, is.
Active voice is the simplest way to construct a sentence. It lists the subject, predicate, and direct object—in that order—to share a thought. The person or thing, the subject, does the action in an active voice sentence. That subject acts upon the direct object if there is one. Not every sentence includes a direct object. For example, the sentence Alli played guitar is in the active voice. “Alli” is the subject, “played” is the predicate, and “guitar” is the direct object.
Passive voice is the opposite construction of active voice. It’s backward, putting the direct object first, followed by the predicate, with the subject at the end. It’s called passive voice because there’s not a person or thing completing the action. They’re not a participant in what’s happening in the sentence. The direct object is acting on them, out of their control.
Remember that passive voice and past tense are not the same things. Both active and passive voice sentences come in the past, present, and future tense. For example, She walked the dog is an active voice, past tense sentence. The dog was walked by her is a passive voice, past tense sentence.
You’ve likely heard that people prefer the active voice when reading. Why? Active voice makes it clear who does what in each sentence. It eliminates confusion and ambiguity. This is important in content writing, marketing, and sales. You’re trying to get somebody to do something and make a conversion. You’re sharing a call to action and want to be as clear as possible about what you want people to do. Which sentence gets the point across best: We offer free shipping or Free shipping is offered by us? See the difference?
Passive voice sentences often use more words and prepositional phrases. The point is vague. There’s a misconception that longer sentences, bigger words, and more complex construction mean the writer is smarter or an authority on a subject. That’s not always the case. This myth may come from the way we view academic writing. The focus there is on sounding intelligent rather than writing a piece that people can understand. That’s the opposite purpose of content writing. You want your pieces to connect and resonate with as many people as possible.
You can always use active voice construction when writing sentences. There is never a time when using it is a bad idea, though there are some cases where passive voice is acceptable. Use active voice in your topic sentence or to open a paragraph or an article. This helps capture your audience’s interest. It also makes it clear exactly what you intend to discuss throughout the entire piece.
Another helpful place to use active voice is when you’re referencing an outside source. Whether you’re discussing an interview subject, collaboration, or a competitor, make that person or thing the actor in your sentence. For example, if you wanted to quote Apple’s founder in your content, you’d start with the sentence “Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, said.” You wouldn’t put the quote and end the sentence with “said by Apple founder Steve Jobs.”
Though the active voice is almost always the preference in content writing, there are certain cases where you can use the passive voice. Depending on which ideas you want to express or the type of content you’re writing, you may find that passive voice is actually better and more grammatically correct. Writing for journalism, law, and academia may present more situations to use it. Some acceptable situations include:
If you’re discussing a topic where the law is acting upon a situation rather than a person or a thing, you may use the passive voice. You may see passive voice construction in legal documents because there isn’t a distinct subject. For example, an acceptable passive voice sentence may be, If you don’t pay your insurance premium, your coverage may be suspended.
If the action in your sentence is more important than who’s doing it, you may choose the passive voice. This is a common tactic in journalism. For example, in a news story, the sentence There was a car crash on the freeway this morning may be preferable to Someone crashed their car on the freeway this morning. The accident is the focus of the story, not the person who caused it.
If using the active voice may shame or put blame on someone, you may opt for the passive construction. This is like using the passive voice for law, focusing on the terms rather than the actor. For example, the sentence If the contract terms are broken, it may cause termination of services sounds less accusatory than If you break your contract terms, you may lose your services.
In situations where you don’t actually know who or what the subject is, you may choose the passive construction. This is another common tactic in journalism, similar to putting emphasis on the action. For example, you may say Thousands of customers were without power on Friday. That sounds more natural than the active construction of Customers by the thousands lost power on Friday.
If you’re trying to establish authority on a topic or write a rule, you may choose the passive voice. Similar to writing about the law, using passive voice in this situation establishes the authority of an ambiguous ruling body rather than a person or institution. For example, the sentence Visiting hours are over at 8 p.m. sounds more direct and authoritative than We stop visitors from visiting after 8 p.m.
Use these steps to learn how to convert sentences in the passive voice into the active voice:
Certain words or verb forms help you identify a sentence written in the passive voice. They include:
For example, the sentence He was awoken by his alarm clock uses all three indicators and is, in fact, in the passive voice.
Who or what is the sentence about? You need to find the subject of the sentence so you can put it in the correct order for active construction. Using the same example sentence, He was awoken by his alarm clock, we know the subject comes at the end of a sentence in passive voice. Our subject is the “alarm clock.”
What is the action in your sentence? What’s happening? Where’s the verb? In both active and passive sentences, the predicate is in the middle. You won’t need to move its placement to change the voice construction, but you may need to change the verb form. In our sample sentence, “was awoken,” is the predicate. Consider verb form changes to “woke” or “woke up” for active voice.
Who or what is receiving the action in the sentence? In a passive voice sentence, the direct object comes first. In our example, “he” is the direct object.
The active voice formula is:
Subject + Predicate + Direct Object
Once you’ve identified all the parts of the sentence, arrange them in the right order. Remember, you may have to change the verb form of the predicate so that it fits in the active voice construction. This means taking it out of the infinitive for linking form.
Combine all the pieces of the sentence in the right order. In the active voice, our example sentence reads: The alarm clock woke him. You’ll notice this sentence is shorter, with fewer words and a less complex verb form. It’s also more direct in its meaning.
Use these tips to help you find the best ways to address your passive voice construction and other common grammar issues in your content writing so you can better appeal to your target audience:
Spelling and grammar tools like Grammarly and ProWritingAid help you catch writing mistakes, like passive voice. Add the extensions to your browser and check your content right within your word processor, email, and other programs. These tools help make sure you’re publishing the most polished pieces possible.
Related: Grammarly vs Hemingway Editor: Which Should You Choose?
The Flesch-Kincaid (FK) readability index calculates how easy it is to read and understand a piece of written work. Aiming for an FK score of 70 to 80 shows that the copy is at a seventh or eighth-grade reading level. This makes it easy for the largest audience of adults to read and understand. Using a program like the Hemingway Editor tells you the readability score of your content. It also flags issues you can address to improve the quality of your writing, like the usage of passive voice.
If sentence voice and other grammatical topics stress you out, you don’t have to do it alone. CopyPress’ team of vetted and tested writers and editors knows the ins and outs of tricky grammatical situations, like passive voice. Whether you need blog posts, articles, or product descriptions, our team does it all. Put your mind at ease and leave content creation to the professionals. Schedule your free introductory strategy call today. And sign up for our weekly email newsletter to get more content tips and tricks sent right to your inbox.
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Review these side-by-side comparisons of active and passive voice sentences. This helps you see how the constructions differ:
Active: Samantha created an Instagram post. Passive: The Instagram post was created by Samantha.
Active: The marketing team tracked website analytics. Passive: Website analytics were tracked by the marketing team.
Active: I forgot my cell phone at home. Passive: My cell phone was forgotten at home.
Active: She spent extra to earn free shipping. Passive: Free shipping was earned because she spent extra.
Active: I listened to music while I wrote an article. Passive: The article was written while I listened to music.
Understanding the difference between active and passive voice can make you a better writer. Writing marketing content with these constructions in mind makes it easier to share a targeted message that resonates with your audience.
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