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August 1, 2018

I had an English professor in college who made it clear from day one that in his class, he upheld a very important rule: Every time you used passive voice in a paper, he would drop you a grade.

My first thought upon this announcement, naturally, was, Wow, what a hardass.

But that rule, for all its frustration and hassle, was actually the best thing that has ever happened to me as a writer. Here’s why.

What’s passive voice?

Good question. Passive voice plagues our writing (and speaking) on a daily basis. It’s like that little parasite in your home that’s always around but doesn’t bother you quite enough to do anything about it. Then, when you finally snap and get rid of it, you’re blown away by how much of a positive difference it makes.

Put simply, passive voice usually occurs when you make the object of an action into the subject of a sentence.

Let’s look at how that breaks down.

Passive voice: The snacks were ordered by Stephen.

Active voice: Stephen ordered the snacks.

And in terms of the subject and the object:  

We take our snacks very seriously here at CBM HQ. 

See how much more direct the sentence sounds when you use active voice? Stephen ordered the snacks, so he should command the sentence. Plus, the active version of the sentence only uses four words, unlike the six words in the passive version. Hello, clearer, more concise writing!

So how do you avoid it?

The easiest way to avoid passive voice is to pay attention to these little stinkers called be verbs.

Be verbs are the eight different words formed by the infinitive verb to be:

  1. Be

  2. Is

  3. Am

  4. Are

  5. Was

  6. Were

  7. Being

  8. Been

#TBT to that example from before…

See? A be verb was the main culprit of this case of passive voice.

Here’s a simple rule to remember when deciphering whether or not something is in passive voice: a be verb + a past participle (a verb put into the past tense, usually by adding “ed” to the end) is always passive voice.

Let’s revise a few more sentences, shall we?

People in the sales industry were reached by posts on LinkedIn. → Posts on LinkedIn reached people in the sales industry.

Tokens will no longer be sold at SEPTA stations. → SEPTA stations will no longer sell tokens.

See how much better the second versions of those sentences sound?

None of this is to mean that you can’t ever use be verbs or that there isn’t a time and a place for passive voice. (I guarantee I will have used it at least once by the time I finish writing this blog.) Be verbs are an essential part of our day-to-day communication as humans, and sometimes the tone or meaning of a sentence is best served by passive voice.

Just take it from my own personal pinned tweet:

I’m clearly a fun person to follow on Twitter!

And this is related to marketing…how?

As marketers, we’re always trying to get people to do things. Buy this, click that, sign up for something else. Sometimes those messages are forceful and direct, and sometimes we bury them under a layer of soft-sell storytelling. At the end of the day, though, it’s all about achieving that action.

Sometimes, eliminating passive voice is about eliminating unnecessary words that clog up your copy, especially when delivering a message containing a call to action. In general, passive voice also makes you sound unsure of yourself. (There’s a reason the word “passive” is in its name, after all.)

A tweet that reads “Book today!” sounds a lot more confident than one that reads “Consider booking today.” The latter phrase sounds like the brand asking you to book isn’t even sure whether or not they think you should do it.

We have enough garbage to wade through every time we go online—we don’t need to add extra, unnecessary words to the mix. Passive voice has no place in a digital world as demanding as ours where attention spans are short and patience is minimal.

And what about the rest of the time?

Here at ChatterBlast, we attribute a lot of our success to the strong relationships we build with our clients and partners. Those relationships, as you can imagine, rely on clear and continual communication—especially over email.

If we want to inform a client that a piece of content we created performed exceptionally well, do you think we want to sound passive about this success? Naaaaaah. 

Imagine if we reported the following to a client: “A 50% increase in followers was gained from our campaign.”

Ok, cool. But rather than masking this important achievement behind passive language and unnecessary words, let’s try it this way: “Our campaign gained a 50% increase in followers.”

The thing with passive voice is that it gives the credit for the action to the object of the sentence, not the subject. Which means that in the passive version of the example above, the sentence fails to mention the campaign—which is the whole reason why this amazing statistic exists—until the very end. Why do that when we can lead with the fact that we’re obviously the creative geniuses who created an incredible campaign?

Me when I copy edit a sentence that doesn’t contain passive voice.

I leave you with this: Do you want to be the type of marketer who fails to capture a sense of immediacy and urgency with your audience? Or would you rather be, you know, the opposite of that?

If the latter sounds better to you, here’s the first step you can take to get there: Pass on passive voice.

About the Author

Valerie Hoke

Valerie Hoke is an editor at ChatterBlast. In addition to having a weird lifelong obsession with bagpipes, she likes telling people she’s from Arizona and talking about Captain America.

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