Write using active verbs, rather than a passive tone of voice, and your copy will have much more zing. And once you’ve got the hang of it, writing in an active voice will quickly become second nature.
How? It’s all about the way a sentence fits together. Here’s the grammar bit so bear with me here. There are typically three main parts to every sentence:
- A subject (the person, group or thing doing the action)
- A verb (what they’re doing)
- An object (the person, group or thing that the action is being done to)
For example, in the sentence ‘The government has imposed quarantine to limit the spread of a COVID-19 second wave’:
- The subject is ‘the government’
- The verb is ‘imposed’
- The object is ‘quarantine’
Here’s another example. Take the sentence ‘Melanie watched television’. Watched is the active verb here – the sentence says who is doing the watching before it says what is being watched. Melanie is the subject and the television is the object.
With a passive sentence, this is turned upside down. The object becomes the subject and the subject becomes the object: the television (subject) was watched (verb) by Melanie (object).
Not only is the sentence more boring but we’ve had to introduce the extra words ‘was’ and ‘by’, making the sentence clumsier.
Use active verbs to transform your writing
Here are some examples of how to rejig your writing to turn a passive verb into an active one:
- Tooth decay can be caused by too much sugar (passive)
- Too much sugar can cause tooth decay (active)
- This issue will be considered shortly (passive)
- We will consider the issue shortly (active)
- The lockdown party was broken up by the police (passive)
- Police broke up the lockdown party (active)
You be the judge – which sounds the most interesting to you to read?
Why passive verbs are a no-no
Here’s some of the reasons why you should avoid using passive verbs:
- They can be confusing
- They often make writing more convoluted
- They make writing less lively
Having said that, passive verbs do have a place. There are times when they can be a better choice than an active verb, such as:
- To make a statement less hostile – “This bill has not been paid” (passive) is softer and less accusatory than “You have not paid this bill”.
- To avoid taking the blame – “A mistake was made” (passive) rather than admitting “We made a mistake” (active).
- When you don’t know who is doing the action – as in “The England team has been picked” (passive).
- If it simply sounds better for reasons you can’t put your finger on.
But, as a general rule, the Plain English Campaign recommends we should make around 80-90% of our verbs active ones.
If all this grammar malarkey sounds like too much bother, you can always save yourself the headache by using a professional copywriter like me, freeing you to focus on what you do best. Get in touch to discuss how I can help.