Actives Speak Louder


August 7, 2011 by bradcharlesbeals

The last time you thought of active and passive voice was probably high school. Let’s dust it off and see how it applies to writing copy for the web.

First, a refresher…

By the time we’re 12 or so, the grammar/language template in our heads is fixed. This explains why anyone moving to the US before that age will probably lose the accent while anyone older will keep it. For the English speaker this fixed structure also means that in the normal course of language use, subject precedes verb and verb precedes complement.

How this or any word order conveys meaning is called syntax. In the sentence The dog chased the ball our subject is dog, the verb is chased, and the complement is ball. But if we’re given the two nouns in different order—ball, dog—our brains, by default, will have the first doing an action to the second. Ball hits dog. That’s our natural syntax making sense of the two nouns.

But our brains are good at language, and if we know that chasing is involved we can straighten it out by recasting it in the passive—The ball was chased by the dog. The meaning is the same as our first sentence, but to get there we’ve asked our brain to stop in its normal track and to take a slight turn in syntax. Likewise, when we read a passive construction, the syntax requires us to add a step in order to comprehend it. It’s like walking through a room with furniture in it. We do it all the time but not usually on a straight line, and always at the risk of stubbing a toe.

So how do we apply that to web-page copy?

First, active voice helps us take advantage of web-user scanning habits. It’s a truism that web users don’t read, they scan. When we scan a page, we unconsciously assume—among other things—a standard syntax, so passive constructions aren’t picked up as easily. Ball before dog, therefore, is a bump that the scanning eye wants to skip since our brains have to perform an extra function to fill in the meaning. A scanning eye is unforgiving toward copy, so bumps get jumped, and meaning is lost.

Secondly, active voice is shorter. In terms of home-page copy, shorter is better. A page full of text is a barrier off which your user is likely to bounce. Active voice can help.

Compare our sentences: The dog chased the ball. Five words. The ball was chased by the dog. Seven words. Two added words may not seem like much, but that’s an increase in copy of 29%. A passive-prone writer is a fluffy writer, and web users are unmerciful with fluff.

Finally, active voice is clearer. You can’t help but appreciate the blunt-spoken. You always know exactly where they’re coming from. And blunt people don’t speak in the passive voice. Their subjects are right out front for all to see, not hidden at the end behind verb and prep phrases.

For the sake of clarity, web copywriters might take a cue from such straight shooters. Subject does verb—it’s very simple, really. The active voice is simply more effective for the web and other forms of business copy. Our scanning eyes demand it, a clearly conveyed message requires it, and your users are more likely to actually read it.

So it turns out your high school English teacher was right about something.

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