How to spot the passive voice

The passive voice — or passive sentences — are subject to almost universal scorn and banished in just about every brand’s Tone of Voice guidelines. I know I’ve banished them when writing up Tone of Voice guidelines for clients. But I’ll also happily admit it took me a long time to know exactly what passive voice was and how to spot it from a mile off.

So, in the spirit of making the complex stuff simple, I figured it might be helpful to others to write a super quick guide.

Why is passive voice so bad?

Before we dive into what passive voice is, how to spot it, and what to do about it, let’s talk about why it’s got such a bad rap.

People write in the passive voice when they want to sound official or important. Mainly because it’s a mainstay of legal writing. It sounds official, and somewhat aloof. That’s great if you want to come off as official and aloof, but not so great if you want a brand to have a friendly, conversational voice.

In the age of chatbots and smart speakers, cutting passive voice from your copy is even more important. Robots reading passive voice sound terrifying and even less human. And the last thing we want is anyone feeling terrified of your brand.

What is passive voice?

There are a lot of ways to describe what passive voice. But this is the only one that clicked for me. Passive voice, in most (but not all) cases, involves removing I or we from the sentence, it isn’t clear who’s performing the action the sentence describes. For example:

“Your account details will be emailed to you.”

In this case, it’s not clear who’s doing the emailing. Is it robots? Is it monkeys? Is it email-a-tron-9000? It’s not at all obvious. In fact, the easiest way to spot passive voice is if you can add “by robots/monkeys/email-a-tron-9000” to the end of the sentence and it still make sense. Like this:

“Your account details will be emailed to you by robots.”

See? Weird. It feels inhuman (literally), impersonal and a bit stuffy. If that’s how you want your brand to sound, great. If it isn’t, try dropping a we, us, or even an I into that sentence. Like this:

“We’ll send you an email with your account details.”

That’s it. Easy. That passive voice no longer exacts. It’s active voice now. And it feels a lot better. Don’t you think?

But wait, I have a question…

Question: My manager says I have to write formally and I can’t say “we” in case someone takes us to court over a missing account details email. So, I can’t do it.

Answer: That’s not a question, but I hear what you’re saying. The reality, though, is that you are your brand. If that emails goes missing, people are going to be mad anyway. And not including we or I in that copy probably doesn’t absolve you from your responsibilities anyway.

Go on, write that sentence in active voice. You can do it. I believe in you.

Question: But my manager says we’re a serious company for serious professional people and the writing you’re describing sounds child-like or condescending.

Answer: This is false. We’re all human. Let’s act like it, eh? Even the people who wear suits and have trouser presses in their office won’t think any less of you. I know because I write for those people every now and again. No-one’s given me a clip around the ear and told me to talk properly yet.

Question: I’m a better writer than you and your explanation of passive voice isn’t 100% watertight.

Answer: I know, I know. I’ve probably missed something out. But I think you’ll agree this is probably the most likely scenario that passive voice crops up in, no? You probably are a better writer than me, though. And I’m okay with that. We’re all on a journey, friend.

Question: I still don’t understand what you’re on about / I have another reason why passive voice is entirely necessary.

Answer: Look, buddy, people are getting bored now. Let’s chat over email about it? I’d be more than happy to go over it/prove your manager wrong.