Web-headlines benefit from passive voice

Usability guru Jakob Nielsen has more thoughts on writing Web-headlines and how they benefit from the use of the passive voice. Nielsen's classic 1998 essay "Microcontent: How to Write Headlines, Page Titles, and Subject Lines" is the single most important essay I've ever read on good Web style, and today's followup, "Passive Voice Is Redeemed For Web Headings," is an intriguing followup.

Nielsen's thesis is that the passive voice -- which is usually frowned upon by people who love good prose -- enables headline writers to "front-load" their heds with the key concepts from the story, making it easier for people scanning those headlines (as search results or feed headlines) to pick out their meaning more quickly.

However, recent findings from our eyetracking research emphasized the overwhelming importance of getting the first 2 words right, since that's often all users see when they scan Web pages. Given this, we have to bend the writing guidelines a bit, especially for elements that users fixate on when they scan – that is, headlines, subheads, summaries, captions, hypertext links, and bulleted lists.

Words are usually the main moneymakers on a website. Selecting the first 2 words for your page titles is probably the highest-impact ROI-boosting design decision you make in a Web project. Front-loading important keywords trumps most other design considerations.

Writing the first 2 words of summaries runs a close second. Here, too, you might want to succumb to passive voice if it lets you pull key terms into the lead.


See also:
Design critique of Jakob Nielsen
Jakob Nielsen consisely summarizes all the reasons that reading PDFs on-screen sucks.
Jakob Nielsen AlertBox on designing the PR section of your Website to make journos happy
Nielsen's top-10 blog usability mistakes
Nielsen: User-education won't fix security
Headline-writing guidelines


  1. There was a good example of the importance of getting the first several words right a few years ago.

    Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo was using RSS feed software that took the first three words of the article to produce the headline.

    One day Josh began an article with “Atrios is dead right about something-or-other”. Everyone who read his site via RSS saw “Atrios is dead”, and nothing else (Atrios, alias Duncan Black, is one of the leading progressive bloggers). This launched a wave of alarm because inevitably a few people didn’t click through, but posted “Josh Marshall says Atrios is dead” to their own blogs.

  2. The passive voice is great, and I would speculate that even those who “love good prose” are also in favor of the passive voice. It’s certainly the case that philosophical writing more or less requires the use of passive voice – so much so that I find standard word processor grammar checks useless.

    The rule ‘don’t use passive voice’ is much like the rule ‘don’t start a sentence with a conjunction.’ Both are crutches, sometimes useful in teaching people to write when you’re not yet ready to explain when it is and is not appropriate to use the (provisionally) forbidden form. But neither should continue to be held to in the writing of a mature author.

  3. I’m not saying he’s absolutely right or wrong on this one issue, but Nielsen’s columns are always a bit on the annoyingly self-righteous-sounding side.

    In general he seems to be a tree-fetishist as whole forests just pass him by.

    It’s tough to take a “usability expert” seriously when for YEARS his URL didn’t work unless you included the “www.” in front of it.

  4. It isn’t really a “rule”, just a way to avoid weaselly language like “Mistakes were made” and “Experiments were done”. Who made the mistakes? Who did the experiments?

  5. Avoiding passive voice creates a tone of certainty in prose. As a literature student, I never wrote criticisms that contained passive voice – it reduces the precision of one’s language, fosters misinterpretation and ambiguity and as a result opens the door for counterarguments. For emails and blog posts, though, it’s usually not worth the extra effort.

    I don’t really agree with his main point, though. I think you could improve summaries/headlines (by his standards) by restructuring subjects within the sentence, and not necessarily resorting to passive voice.

  6. The problem with passive-voice writing is that it leads to passive-voice thinking, which creates philosophical sloppiness. I can’t tell you how many times someone has said something to me like, “The poor in this country are exploited!” OK, by whom? The rich? The middle class? The government? The businesses? Or there was the person who said to me, “Women dressing like sluts have to be stopped.” By whom and how? By law? By force? By custom?

    Using the passive voice in an in-depth discussion is too often a means of avoiding a commitment to an argument, and should be called out as such. In headlines it might be ok, but if the head reads, “Health Care Provided to Children,” the story darn well better say who is doing the providing.

  7. The question is why do the headlines for Boing Boing TV typically suck so hard? For example:

    “Visions of the Future/Listography”

    “King Corn / Count Smokula!”

  8. But for certain purposes, what is important is that the children were given health care. If the question at hand is whether children are currently receiving adequate health care, it need not be important to know who is doing the providing. (Indeed, some means of measuring whether children receive health care may not be very revealing as to who provided it). Similarly, it may sometimes be easier to identify that a group has been exploited than to clearly identify a guilty party.

    In such situations, it can be awkward or misleading to use the active voice.

    It’s certainly the case that the use of passive voice is sometimes unclear or misleading. Being a good writer involves knowing when passive voice is and isn’t appropriate. For students at a certain level, a blanket prohibition on the passive voice may be easier than trying to teach them when it is appropriate.

    But it’s silly to treat such a prohibition as a rule for mature writers, and it’s simply wrong for a word processor to identify it as a grammatical error.

  9. @Flamingphonebook

    It isn’t only passive voice that leads to sloppy arguments. I work with writers who are very unclear because they do not use specifics. The sentence isn’t passive, but vague. “The man says negative things.” This is not passive, but just as vague as any of your examples in passive voice. There is more that goes into the sloppy thinking you’re arguing against than simply people’s use of passive voice. Passive voice can be useful in lots of situations, and often it is not noticed. “The teacher told the student his sentence was in passive voice and should be changed to be correct.” It needs to be used carefully and consciously though, so teaching students when that voice works most effectively is important.

  10. The most important rule for writers is “Know your audience.” Since the audience for web headlines includes search engines and people who are scanning for subject keywords, Nielsen has pointed out a perfectly good reason for a writer to choose to use a passive verb.

    If the identity of the actor is unknown or unimportant, that’s another good reason. Less noble reasons may include a desire to mislead, or unfamiliarity with this basic grammatical concept.

    Grammatically speaking, catchphrases like “avoid passive verbs” or “show, don’t tell” are useful style guidelines, not rules.

  11. The “rule” of avoiding passive voice is not a general rule of writing. It is a rule of writing news. When writing news, it is usually a good idea to avoid using the passive voice because its use often indicates that you have failed to include information that would be relevant. A sentence like “The mayor’s office fired five city workers today” is more informative than the sentence “Five city workers were fired today.” Writing in the passive voice often serves as a crutch for writers who don’t want to take the time to figure out who is doing what.

    Part of what makes this story interesting is that the person is talking about writing news. However, in particular they’re arguing that passive voice is a good idea in headlines, even if its use should be discouraged elsewhere in the news article.

  12. @Englishnerd

    Of course. I don’t say passive voice is the only problem. What I do say is that it gives people the thought that there can be action without specific actors. This is fine if the actor is really of no relevance. My problem with it comes when people describe negative actions in the passive voice, seeking to avoid blaming or crediting someone.

    To take my examples above, if there’s no specific entity exploiting the poor, then there’s no proper way to stop the exploitation. Passive voice can make people think that it’s therefore proper to relieve them of their exploitation, when they may deserve it. On the flip, if the health care is provided by at no cost, then either it’s generous donors or public funds. And people should know, so that we can salute the generous, or so the ones against using the public money to provide health care (me), can get mad.

  13. Oh, I suppose I’ll catch some flack from the Nielsen-can-do-no-wrong groupies out there, but here goes. I used to work in the usability industry for one of NNG’s competitors. I never bought Neilsen’s arguments and considered his approach to be incredibly antiquated. Here is a review of Neilsen’s Designing Web Usability that I wrote for LibraryThing:

    Jakob Nielsen is the computer industry’s declared “king of usability.” To that I say The King Has No Clothes! If you are a text-centric person, you will really love the Spartan and bare-bones approach philosophized by Dr. Nielsen. However, if you consider yourself someone who is graphically oriented (probably the vast majority of today’s contemporary computer users), you will find this book a complete waste of time and a major disappointment. In a nutshell, Dr. Nielsen eschews anything graphical and advocates systems designs that are Luddite in nature. His design philosophy is antiquated and completely out of touch with today’s systems. Reading this book I am reminded of the classic Dilbert cartoon where Dilbert and Wally are having lunch with a bitter veteran software developer. “When I started programming,” quips the old school veteran, “we didn’t have any of these sissy icons and windows. All we had were zeros and ones – and sometimes we didn’t even have ones. I once wrote an entire database program using zeros.” I am also filled with the sense that perhaps Nielsen may have flunked Crayola 101 in kindergarten and has been on an anti-graphical rant ever since. If you loved the old days of command line DOS operating systems, blue screens and commands requiring acrobatic keyboard maneuvers (e.g., tap your feet and blink twice while simultaneously pressing CTRL-Left Shift-ALT-F7), by all means grab this book. If you enjoy graphical user interfaces, then you’d better pass on this book.

    Well, that said, he must be doing something right. NNG is going strong and my old consulting company folded.

  14. Did you feel the shudder echoing through U.S. journalism schools? For those of us who treasure clear, concise writing, this isn’t welcome news. But a larger issue is whether we allow the technology to dictate communication strategy and erode its effectiveness.

    But as Dennis points out, part of our audience is the search engine spider. And weaving this tangled web along with him is our SEO geek.

    Sadly, bad online writing isn’t anything new. It’s pretty much the norm these days.

  15. The headline is bunk; web headlines do not, as a rule, benefit from passive voice. The concept of passive voice is orthogonal to that of writing good headlines. It’s just that for specific headlines, passive voice might be the better choice (however not because it’s passive, but because more relevant words end up in the ‘skimming zone’ at the start), and that being useful some of the time is a step up from being useful pretty much never.

    Similarly, just from considering that some acting roles call for an unusual appearance (think X Files), you wouldn’t conclude that “Actors benefit from rare medical conditions.”

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