Active Voice: Time to Get Passive-Aggressive About Sentences

Is active voice bad or good?
Is active voice bad or good?!

There’s a thing in writing that some writing people know, whilst others don’t (know it). And that’s active voice. Which isn’t passive voice. Confused? That’s passive voice! So, yes, you should be.

What’s Active Voice?

It’s a sentence where a subject acts upon its verb. Here’s an example:

  • Passive voice: For dinner, six Pot Noodle Sandwiches were eaten by Jeffrey.
  • Active voice: Jeffrey ate six Pot Noodle sandwiches for dinner.

Asides from being an impossible slob (who eats a Pot Noodle sandwich!?), Jeffrey is right to like noodles. However, one sentence is sharper than the other. That’s active voice, for you.

This heads out across the world, of course, it’s not just English speaking folks who do it. Here’s a French version:

  • Le chien a mordu le facteur (The dog bit the postal carrier).
  • Le facteur a été mordu par le chien (The postal carrier was bitten by the dog).

Our day job is as copywriters/content writers/morons in the world of marketing. Active voice is a big deal there and some content managers obsess over it.

Even though 99% of the reading world wouldn’t give a damn either way, whether they know what passive voice is or not.

For us, it’s simple—use the bloody thing if you’re writing professionally. It makes you look like you know your stuff.

Now, anyone who knows about this stuff will see on our site we regularly write in passive voice. There are three reasons for this:

  1. It’s our goddamn site and we can goddamn do what we goddamn want, thank you very much!
  2. Sometimes we can’t be arsed mangling a sentence in the name of active voice.
  3. Muh.

Typically, for us, it’s an expedience thing. We have to run Professional Moron around our real job.

So, spending ages meticulously ensuring everything is in active voice would add about 10 hours onto our annual content creation time.

In short, we’re being lazy about it. For which we don’t apologise. But, for sure, if you work in marketing/journalism then you should aim for active voice.

Heck, it was one of George Orwell’s rules for writing, “Never use the passive where you can use the active.” Although he does use passive within his six rules, confusing the situation further.

But we do have a good excuse. The whole point of this site is to be dumb. So, being all over the place with active/passive voice sits comfortably with our cultivated image of staggering incompetence.

But consider it a useful little tip if you want to sharpen up thy writing.

Zombies & Passive Voice

If you don’t want to come across like an idiot, then you need to learn all about active voice. One good way of doing so is with the “by zombies” rule.

If you can add “by zombies” onto the end of a sentence, it’s probably passive voice. Here’s an example:

  • For dinner, six Pot Noodle Sandwiches were eaten (by zombies).
  • Jeffrey ate six Pot Noodle sandwiches for dinner (you can’t get “by zombies” in there).

So, whilst this mansplaining to you is all good fun, remember there’s an important message behind all of this. It’s just we can’t remember what that is.

Just pretend the fate of the universe depends upon this.

Quite a lot of content managers/copywriters sure do. Are they right? Well, who know’s how that’ll be decided!? (by zombies)

4 comments

  1. I like Orwell’s writing rules, but I’m sure I break them a hell of a lot. When I write, it’s just a stream of words and then some editing to make sure it actually makes sense and isn’t total garbage. These are great rules to drill into students just learning how to write so they don’t form bad habits, but we’ve earned the right to break them sometimes, haven’t we?

    Or maybe I’m just being lazy too. I hate those content editors, anyway. Regular people don’t care about comma placement, I’d tell them, but would they listen? Hell no.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Agree on that! With creative writing you can be loose with it all. And should be, really! Although I’ve read some literary agents look for active voice in new authors, which is also OTT. It’s not essential for prose.

      But from working in marketing, there’s a draconian approach to grammar. Obsessive and pedantic. Over the top at times, you get plenty of great writers who don’t know what subordinate clauses are etc. I was rejected from one job because the content manager said there were possessive noun inconsistencies in a test piece I wrote. I read back through it, had someone else read it, and it was clear the guy either invented the issues or didn’t know what he was on about. You get weird stuff like that a lot.

      My approach is if it’s clear, fun, and engaging then it’s good copy. And it doesn’t matter if there’s a borderline unclear antecedent somewhere or whatever. The only thing that really annoys me is if people get “your” and “you’re” wrong.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I absolutely agree about copy. Those managers who obsess over minute issues of grammar seem to be all over the place. God help you if you don’t have the Chicago manual memorized front to back.

        It’s weird to me, because as you say, readers care a lot more about copy being easy and interesting to read, which means that the flow of the writing is a lot more important than strict adherence to rules of usage. Doesn’t make sense even from a business perspective. But there’s no convincing them.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I think it’s people trying to justify their jobs and career choices. And then hard traditions kick in and everyone believes one way is correct over another. Starting a sentence with “And”, for example, can cause consternation in some circles.

          I’ve worked at some places with very relaxed style guidelines where they don’t care about it, but my present role has been very strict. Long debates over active voice, Oxford commas, and whether internal links should open in a new window. The horror!

          Meanwhile, content is waiting to be written. That’s why I run this blog. My rules and just let it rip!

          Liked by 1 person

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