Active Voice and Passive Voice: Differences and Benefits of Each
Grammatically, the difference between the active voice and passive voice is the relationship between verb and subject. In the active voice, the subject is performing the action. In the passive voice, the action is happening to the subject.
Active: The man drives the car.
Passive: The car is driven by the man.
This ends the education part of this blog post — and not a moment too soon. Now, let’s get into using the active voice and passive voice in the real world; when you should be using them; and give you a few tips for using them to your advantage as a brand manager, marketing manager, content creator or copywriter.
You want to be in the active voice as much as you can
Between the active voice and passive voice, the active is more confident and authoritative. It makes you seem like you know what you’re talking about, even if you don’t. It’s also more economical, in that you need fewer words to convey your ideas. But, according to Re:word co-owner and head writer Dan Yurman, the active voice requires more effort when writing.
“We’re all predisposed to think in the passive voice because we all — you, me, Bill Gates — spend the majority of our lives reacting,” says Yurman. “If you were to list all the ‘things you did’ over the course of your life versus ‘things that happened to you,’ it wouldn’t be close. Conservatively, I’d put it at 20/80.“
Yurman says aiming for brevity is the best way to keep yourself in the active voice.
“As you cut words in your sentence, you’ll have to rearrange the remaining words to make sense,” says Yurman. “As you do that, you’ll almost always write yourself into the active voice.”
The active voice is essential for a company value proposition
If this seems counter-intuitive because you see your product or service as the good thing happening to your prospect if they choose you, shift your thinking to the actions they’ll be able to take because they chose you. Our favourite example of this is Mail Chimp’s value proposition.
The passive voice has its moments
Between the active voice and passive voice, you’d use the passive when the person or thing performing the action you’re talking about is less relevant than the action itself.
Consider “my lunch was made in two minutes.” It doesn’t matter who made your lunch. What matters is that you were sitting down and eating in three minutes. Who wouldn’t want that for themselves?
The passive voice is helpful when conveying pain points
“No one really wants to take responsibility for the problems in their lives,” says Yurman. “That’s human nature and there’s nothing wrong with it. But as a copywriter, I have to be cognizant of that as I’m writing and use it to my advantage. So, instead of something like, ‘You’re not qualified for the job you want,’ it’d be something like, ‘The job market is telling you that you need more.’ It’s subtle, but it makes a huge difference to the reader’s psyche, and the subsequent emotions they associate with you. When you let them off the hook, they’ll appreciate that, consciously or otherwise, and show that appreciation with patronage and hopefully a recommendation or two.”
A final point about the active voice and passive voice
Like in poker, tennis, negotiations and just about everything else, controlling the action is always preferable to reacting to events that happen. If, through using the active voice and passive voice correctly, you can make your reader feel like they’ll have more control over their actions, they’ll be much more likely to choose you.