False positives in the English passive analysis

Last update: 24 January, 2018

This article gives an overview of the cases in which the Yoast SEO passive voice assessment for English will yield incorrect results. We always strive for results that are as accurate as possible. However, because of the irregularities in human language, it will never be possible to get our analysis 100% right. Below you find a list of cases in which our analysis will incorrectly detect passive voice in sentences that aren’t really passive (false positives).

It’s not necessary to know about all of those cases to write a good text. Rather, this overview is intended to give you some clues in case you’re wondering why certain sentences are not correctly detected by the passive voice analysis.

Passive voice in English

To help you understand the false positives and negatives, here is a quick explanation of how the passive voice assessment works. The passive voice assessor in English looks for sentences containing a passive auxiliary and a past participle (a passive verb).

Passive auxiliaries are formed using a form of ‘to be’ or ‘to get’. They are ‘helper verbs’ to the main passive verb.

Past participles are the main verbs of a passive form. They are verb forms such as ‘written’ or ‘used’.

False positives in Yoast SEO for English

The passive voice assessment of Yoast SEO will incorrectly detect a passive voice in the following cases:

1. When a sentence has a passive auxiliary and a participle, but those words serve different functions in that particular sentence.

For example, in a sentence like “A URL is removed by Google”, the words ‘is’ and ‘removed’ form a passive voice. However, it can happen that those two words occur in a sentence together, but with different functions:

“If a URL returns a 410, Google is far more certain you removed the URL on purpose.”

In this sentence, the word ‘is’ describes a property of Google (“Google is far more certain”) and the word ‘removed’ describes an action that ‘you’ did. Therefore, ‘is’ and ‘removed’ do not belong together and cannot form a passive voice. However, the passive voice assessor does not know this and incorrectly analyses the sentence as containing a passive.

Below is another example of a case when two words that could form a passive do not actually belong together:

“There is a page saying “content not found”.”

In this sentence, the word ‘is’ describes the presence of a page, and the word ‘found’ is part of the message displayed by that page. However, the passive voice assessor cannot separate the text in between quotes from the main content of the sentence. Therefore, it incorrectly thinks that the words ‘is’ and ‘found’ are forming a passive. In comparison, a sentence where ‘is’ and ‘found’ do form a passive would be something like “The girl is often found sleeping.”.

2. When a word that can be a past participle also has additional meanings.

For example, the word ‘left’ can be a past participle of ‘to leave’ and can form a passive in sentences like “The book was left in the library.”. However, ‘left’ is also a noun (as in, the opposite of ‘right’), and if it occurs after an auxiliary, the passive voice assessor will mistake it for a passive verb:

“The content part of this website is structured correctly, but the sidebar on the left is using a reversed structure.”

In another example below, the word ‘(a)re’ and the word ‘done’ form the expression ‘you’re done’, meaning something like ‘you have finished’:

“You don’t just optimize for Google search, then boom you’re done.”

This is not a passive, as it does not describe an action done to the person. Nevertheless, the passive voice assessor will analyse it as a passive. This is because it cannot differentiate between such sentences, and sentences where ‘done’ does function as a passive verb. An example of the latter would be “The passive analysis is done by the plugin.”


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