© 2020 - Erin Lebacqz Consulting - Sacramento, CA


Does Active Voice Matter? Let's Ask Our Brains

Our minds may assign roles - like "doer" - to the nouns we encounter when reading.

Test results from Staples’ speed reading challenge found that the average adult reads 300 words per minute. Comparatively, the average college professor reads at 675 wpm, speed readers manage an impressive 1,500wpm, and the world speed reading champion accomplishes the unimaginable: 4,700 wpm.

Though “high-level execs” clocked in at more like 575 wpm, the issue is clear: with so much to read each day, how are we going to find the time to get through it all at our bumbling 300-575 wpm pace? Forbes calculates that in order to keep up with happenings in our given industry, we’d have to set aside two hours per day of reading articles and other learning materials and media. And that’s before even getting to all those emails loading up your inbox.

The writer's role in reader processing

But what if writers are partially to blame? What if we, too, are complicit when it’s our turn to leave the reader’s seat and sit at the writer’s desk? Writers do indeed hold some of the responsibility: depending on the clarity of our prose, readers will have an easier or harder time digesting it. That said, we as writers can help our readers by creating clear writing that’s easy for the brain to manage. And we as readers will appreciate it.

Sentence structure has a lot to do with sentence clarity, and research is starting to show us that clearer sentence structure means less brain processing time for readers. Clear use of active voice has been found to require less brain processing time in recent research. We’ve heard advice about using active voice ad nauseum from our teachers, here and there from our bosses, and we consider it a best practice for writing in the business world. But it turns out it may be worth listening to this symphony of voices: our brains appear to agree too.

Active and Passive Voice May "Live" at Different Addresses in Our Brains

We actually use different centers in our brain to dissect sentences that use active or passive voice. This results from the different focus of each sentence type: active voice focuses right away on the “doer,” whereas passive voice starts with an object and then brings up the doer later (if ever). Here’s an example:

  • The new employee submitted the report. (active)

  • The report was submitted by the new employee. (passive)

  • (or) The report was submitted. (passive)

In these examples, the employee is the doer. This person did something. The report is an object, or the recipient of the doing. As such, it’s passive: just sitting around waiting for something to happen. "Maybe some doer will come along and submit me," it thinks.

When we read the first example, right away we recognize that we’re talking about an employee. In the second example, we do realize that, but a little bit later, and after taking time for second thoughts. In the third sentence construction, we’re never actually sure who did what – perhaps leading us to spend a little more time wondering that as well.

The core result is that reading passive sentences makes us complete not only the original reading process, but also a follow-up “reanalysis” process, which may take place at a secondary location in our brains. That’s us saying “Ooh, the whole idea here is actually about an employee,” often after-the-fact.

This may be due to the brain’s tendency to create roles in order to more easily interpret information. Further studies into how word order affects processing hypothesized that brains first create roles for nouns as we read, and then when we find roles are wrongly represented due to word order variation (like in passive voice), we must reprocess our previous decisions about roles.

Let’s see this in action. Writing in active voice, I could tell you that “My cat stole my dog’s food.” To put it passively, I could instead say, “My dog’s food was stolen by my cat.” Skipping over the fact that the second sentence is just a whole lot clunkier than the first, let’s examine the roles.

In the active sentence, it’s clear who has the role of thief: my cat. We know that right away. Reading the second sentence, however, we might initially assign a role to the dog, since she comes up first in the sentence. We might think, “Oh, I see the dog will be doing something in this sentence.” Then we discover that she didn’t, and we must take the time to reassign that “doer” role to the cat.

You might have noticed in the above examples that the verbs used vary slightly as well. So, what if it’s actually the verbs at play here? After all, “stole” is slightly different than “was stolen.” Well, researchers analyzing Mandarin Chinese also found that brain activation differed when reading passive or active sentences in a recent, preliminary study. Since the Chinese language doesn’t require writers to change verb tenses when shifting from active to passive voice, we can deduce that the roles of active and passive voice are more likely the culprit.

Interestingly, one study actually found passive voice to be easier on the mind in some ways. However, this didn’t result from our analytic mechanisms for digesting language. Rather, it associated passive voice with passive behavior. Passive behavior is certainly easier than active behavior – though it elicits few good results. Perhaps passive voice has a similarly kick-back vibe for our minds.

The research into sentence structure's connection to roles assigned by the brain is still new, so we need to stay tuned. For now, though, let's focus on getting that doer into the primary spot in our sentences: the beginning, the subject spot. Active voice, or doer-centric writing, allows readers to immediately understand the roles played by the various nouns in our sentences, and so appears thus far to simply be easier to mechanistically interpret. Who knows how fast we might read if all the sentences we encounter were so easy to process!