Further to our attempts to rehabilitate the passive voice – or at least demonstrate that using the passive appropriately doesn’t make you a spineless victim type – we were intrigued to read Jakob Nielsen’s recent newsletter topic, “Passive Voice is Redeemed for Web Headings”.
The grand wizard of usability argues that the “active voice is best for most Web content, but using passive voice can let you front-load important keywords in headings, blurbs, and lead sentences. This enhances scannability and thus SEO effectiveness.”
Eyetracking research underlines the importance of getting the first two words right in headings, intro lines, standfirsts and other content elements that are crucial to instant scan-reading. In such ROI- and SEO-critical contexts, Nielsen argues, “you might want to succumb to passive voice if it lets you pull key terms into the lead”.
Certainly it’s the case that web headlines are bending the conventions a little further as we wrestle to keep them front-loaded with the two or three words that really matter.
Take, for instance, the headline for a course overview in a business school brochure. In print, it would be natural to write: Overview of part-time MBA course
Online, however, it would be much better to write:
Part-time MBA: course overview
For one thing, “part-time MBA course” is the bit that will matter to your scan reader.
For another, the first version would quickly get lost in a list of related items:
Overview of part-time MBA course Overview of full-time MBA course Overview of Business Studies BA
But using passive voice in headlines is not really bending the rules. It was never really the case that good practice in headlines – online or offline – ever banned the passive altogether. Take today’s BBC UK news homepage, which has the following headlines:
More supermarkets 'should be allowed' Boy hit with hammer for mobile Former Australian prisoner buys the cell in which he was jailed Prince quizzed over bird shooting Should more supermarkets be built? Eight killed in Russia bus blast Olympics ticket sales suspended
All of these contain a passive construction, sometimes in abbreviated form. Though not always following Nielsen’s strict front-loading principle, all read perfectly naturally. So it’s not the passive that is bad in itself – something we should try not to “succumb” to – it’s clunky headlines that are bad. Sometimes passives lead to clunkiness and sometimes they are the most elegant solution. Compare:
“You’ve been rumbled” “We have detected your wrongdoing”
Which is the clunkier version? The first is more direct, more like what someone might actually say – but it’s actually a passive. The second – robotic – version is actually in the active voice. So let’s not get too bogged down by the so-called rules of good writing. No one agrees on them anyway. Last word to humourist Dave Barry's 'Ask Mr Language Person':
WRITING TIP FOR PROFESSIONALS: To make your writing more appealing to the reader, avoid 'writing negatively'. Use positive expressions instead. WRONG: 'Do not use this appliance in the bathtub.' RIGHT: 'Go ahead and use this appliance in the bathtub.'
TODAY'S BUSINESS WRITING TIP: In writing proposals to prospective clients, be sure to clearly state the benefits they will receive: WRONG: 'I sincerely believe that it is to your advantage to accept this proposal.' RIGHT: 'I have photographs of you naked with a squirrel.'