passive voice explanation

So far, you’ve learned how to install Yoast and get your site verified, the importance of SEO and keywords, and how you can make little changes to improve your post’s readability. Today, we’ll dive into the really geeky English teacher sort of stuff. I’ll give you a simple passive voice explanation. Don’t run away or stick your fingers in your ears quite yet! 

What EXACTLY is Passive Construction?

In a nutshell, Yoast SEO sees passive construction as any sentence that uses a form of the verb ‘to be.’ Other people have written precise definitionsof exactly what constitutes passive construction. Think of passive voice this way—would you rather watch a movie titled: The Girl Was Kissed by the Boy OR Boy Kisses Girl. Perhaps action movies attract you more than romances. Which would you pay $12.50 to see? The Car Was Crashed by James Bond OR James Bond Crashes a Car (Again). You get the picture. That pesky word ‘was’ slows down the action and makes the reader wonder why they should watch. Using passive construction slows down the mind movie your readers produce when they read your words. 

The Dirty Dozen 

Ok, the verb ‘to be’ has more than a dozen conjugations. Let me show you:

In the past tense, the verb ‘to be’ looks like this:

Other forms of the verb ‘to be’ include: has been, have been, had been, will be, will have been, being, and of course ‘to be.” So, I guess that makes 12 forms! Passive construction often pops up when we use one of those forms along with another verb. The other verb shoes up in the present participle or past participle form (kicking/kicked).

Here's a simple passive voice explanation and a few good reasons why you want to eliminate passive construction from your writing. Your readers will thank you. #betterwriting #passivevoice #improveyourwriting

Sometimes when writers use passive construction, they subconsciously avoid assigning blame. “The reports were turned in late.” This leaves the reader not knowing WHO turned the reports in late. What sounds ok when talking to the boss doesn’t sound so great when your reader reads it.

In order to tighten up your writing, avoid using passive construction. Pretend you take an English class from me and I have asked you to find all of the forms of the verb ‘to be’ in your post. Now, eliminate all but TWO of those by changing your sentence structure.

Most sentences have strong verbs (those that show up in a participle form) that you can use to replace the form of the verb ‘to be.’ Look at this sentence: ‘The girl was kicked by the cow.’ You could change the order of the sentence and rewrite it as ‘The cow kicked the girl.’ That gives the reader a sense of urgency about the cow’s evil intent to kick anything within reach.

I make it a game for myself when I write blog posts to avoid using any form of the verb ‘to be.’ With practice, you can tighten up your writing. Your readers will appreciate it.

How Yoast Grades Passive Voice

I think Yoast assesses blog posts for forms of the verb ‘to be.’ Remember, using a form of the verb ‘to be’ doesn’t always mean the writer has used passive voice. Sometimes we can’t avoid using forms of ‘to be.’ But if I have a yellow or red light on the Yoast readability scale, I can change it by eliminating forms of the verb ‘to be.’

I challenge you! Send me a paragraph with passive construction from one of your blog posts (the before paragraph), and then rewrite the same passage using zero forms of the verb ‘to be.’ I’d love to see what you’ve done: anita at anitaojeda dot com.

2 Comments

  1. Interesting that the Writing Center link you added calls the “to be” explanation a myth! I think the danger of focusing on “to be” verbs is that it can lead writers to confuse tense with voice and start questioning perfectly correct sentences. I’ve had students think that “I was showering when the power went off” is wrong because it’s passive, when in fact it’s not passive but is a correct use of the past continuous tense — it wouldn’t make any sense to change that to “I showered when the power went off.” And surely it makes more sense to say “My son has been injured; he was hit by a car while he was crossing the street” — not “An injury has afflicted my son; a car hit him while he crossed the street.” The active/passive decision depends less on whether you’re using a “to be” verb and more on where you want the emphasis: on the doer of the action, the receiver of the action, or the action itself.

    1. Evidently Yoast needs to work on its definition of passive voice ;). I completely agree that using a form of ‘to be’ makes sense some times, and that just because you’ve used a form of it doesn’t mean that you have erred. On the other hand, people in the U.S. tend to use ‘to be’ as a crutch and their writing sounds dull and boring. We need balance ;).

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Anita Ojeda

Anita Ojeda juggles writing with teaching high school English and history. When she's not lurking in odd places looking for rare birds, you can find her camping with her kids, adventuring with her husband or mountain biking with her students.

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