Wednesday, May 13

Passive Aggression: Avoiding Passive Voice

Passive is boring
By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Use the active voice...we hear it all the time, but what exactly does it mean? And how do you look for it to fix it?

I used to be one of those folks who wrongly equated passive voice with all forms of the "to be" verb, and I'm guessing I'm not the only one. Because quite often, a to be verb is at the heart of a troublesome sentence. But a to be verb doesn't always signal passive writing.

So first, let's look at exactly what passive voice means.

Passive voice is when the subject of the sentence gets all the action instead of the subject doing the acting.
Bob was bitten by a zombie.
This is a passive voice sentence. Bob is your subject here, but Bob doesn't do anything (except maybe stand there like an idiot) and the zombie bites him, thus acting upon him.

In active voice, you'd flip it so that the action (the biting) is done by the subject. Sometimes that requires changing the subject of the sentence.
The zombie bit Bob.
If you want to keep Bob as the main focus, you'd have to change it so that the action is something Bob can do, thus making him the subject of the sentence again.
The zombie bit him. Bob screamed. (Note in this case, the to be verb is now gone)

But what happens if it isn't so clear cut?

Bob was running from the zombies.
Bob is indeed the subject here, and he is indeed the one doing the acting. Bob is running. But a funny thing happens when you use the -ing form of a verb. It often gives it a passive sound that triggers all our passive voice flags. Even though this sentence is an active sentence, most people would say change it to this:
Bob ran from the zombies.
This uses a stronger verb, and it eliminates the to be and the gerund. In most cases, this is the right thing to do. But what happens when you want to show something in the middle of the action?
Bob was running from the zombies when a car hit him.
Though all your passive flags will say this is a passive sentence, it's actually active (although it is told). Bob (the subject) was running (the verb). You can't say "Bob ran from the zombies when the car hit him" because that changes the meaning of the sentence. The car hits Bob in the middle of him running from the zombies. He is actively engaged in the act when something else happens. In these instances, it's fine to use the to be verb, even if it feels passive to you. (Of course, if it really bugs you, then just rewrite it until you're happy. Just don't feel you have to to eliminate it for passive voice because there is no passive voice here)

Okay, so how to find and get rid of these pesky passive sentences. The easiest thing to do is to look for the to be verbs. For those that haven't been in an English class in a while, they are:

Is, am are, was, were, has, have, had. Being, been, and be are all pretty good red flags for passive voice.

I like to pick each one and do a find. Then I look at each sentence and check to make sure my subject is indeed acting and not being acted upon. If that passes muster, then I look to see if there's a stronger way to write the sentence to eliminate the to be verb. Sometimes there is, sometimes there isn't. If the sentence is as strong as it can be, I move on to the next. Beyond that, I just trust my ear to pick up on sentences where the subjected is being acted upon and not acting.

And of course, there are going to be times when the passive voice is exactly the right thing for the sentence. It might be more appropriate for the situation.

Like so many things in writing, it doesn't matter what you do, as long as what you're doing is exactly right for what you're trying to say.


  1. It wasn't until I was an adult, a couple years out of college, that I truly understand the connotation of passive vs. active voice. And I still have times when I struggle with it!

  2. I always have trouble with these kinds of rules. I end up breaking them all without realizing it. The other one is starting a sentence with "As" or something like that. I dunno, like "As Bob ran from the zombie, he was hit by a car." or something. I forget what it's called. Hanging participle? Anyways, I always do that and think it sounds good, but apparently it's wrong.

  3. Thanks for this. I really needed it. Colin, yeah I make that mistake too. There's also a rule that says never to start sentences with "And", but people break that rule (I've seen it in books). What I want to know is, is it okay to break these rules? Will people turn a blind eye when you break them?

  4. It's not an easy thing, because like so many other rules, there are times when it's okay to use it. I use both as and and to start sentences, and it didn't keep me from selling my book.

    You guys have all heard me say this a bunch of times by now, but anything can be done if done well. If breaking a rule is the best way to say what you want to say, then break it. If breaking that rule is the just easiest way, then chances are it's just lazy writing. And that's when all those pesky "don't ever" rules come into play, because they are the most frequently misused writing tools for lazy writing. So people say "don't ever" when they really should be saying "don't cheat by"

  5. Thanks Janice and Glen. I think you're right. I would have to look at the cases where I've broken those rules and see if I was being lazy or not. I have a friend who points those cases out to me and says, "don't ever," and I've always questioned that because I don't really believe in hard and fast rules when it comes to writing (and other forms of art). So that's why I was asking. I guess I just have to take advice like that with a grain of salt. If someone sees something that bothers them, it will probably bother other people as well, but if it works for what I was going for then maybe I should keep it.

  6. I hope you don't mind me responding to an older post. I quite agree with most of yor statements here, but it seems to me that your "was running" example is actually the present participleused to form the progressive aspect of the verb, rather than the gerund.

    Anyway, I'm glad you're putting the correct information out there, regarding "passive writing".

  7. Commenting on old posts is fine :)

  8. Found this nice post at the moment I needed it. Goodigood >:)

    Cold As Heaven

  9. Thank you for this. I bookmarked it. I'm having such a hard time with this subject and this post helps.

  10. "Active and passive voice" are only the form wise distinction. "Be" is never a really active verb, though it helps forming some of their forms (with present participle: "I am looking at ...").

    Be and become are substantive verbs, actually synonyms of "exist" and "come into being". Her hair was red=her hair existed as something red. Her cheeks became red=her cheeks came into being as a red thing (already existing in their other respects).

    All other verb forms can be regarded as equivalent of "be+participle" with participles available in English for active non-past and for (usually) passive past. And with participled forms (in English) anyway not quite the same time form as simpler counterpart.

    The other verbs can be intransitive like stand, walk; transitive active like hit, transitive passive like be hit, passive non-transitive like fall, sleep, active non-transitive ... already done that, intransitive, and the two or three medium voices: reflexive, reciprocal, indirectly reflexive: "wash oneself, wash eachother, wash something/someone for oneself".

  11. An appropiate occasion for passive: "Bob suddenly knew he had been bitten. Was it a zombie or the vampire who did it?"

    (Really "who had done it" but Bob is of course thinking in the words "who HAS DONE it" or who DID it" without any HAD.)

  12. And gerund/present participle (same form in English different ones in Latin) with be is of course not passive voice formally. To be falling is passive insofar as it is something that happens to one, but in order to get passive voice, you need to get a past participle of a transitive verb: be gone won't do, since gone is from intransitive, but be bitten does, since bite is active.

  13. So sorry, I must go all grammar nazi yet again.

    Outside of any specific context, running is a present participle.

    In the sentence "Running is fun," running is a gerund. Gerunds are nouns.

    In the sentence "Jane heard running water," running is a participial adjective.

    In the sentence "Bob was running," was running is a verb in the past progressive (aka past continuous) tense.

  14. Thanks for the correction! I've made the change

  15. This comment has been removed by the author.

  16. Excellent post, thanks for sharing! :)

  17. I must make a sweep of my WIP for this issue. Your direction is very simple and something I should be able to implement, right now!

    Thx for the explanation, this will help my writing.

  18. I know this is an older post, but it's so great. Nothing beats actual examples. Thanks.

  19. Useful stuff. There are a lot of Blogs out there purporting to help people with their writing skills. This is one of the few that consistently includes solid advice about concrete techniques.

  20. Hi Janice
    So glad this one was in the pictures at the top of your site.
    I've just read a post elsewhere about editing that skated over passive voice, and this cleared up my subsequent confusion, so thanks :)

    1. Oh good! So glad it was able to help. It can be confusing, since many mix up or group together passive voice and passive verbs.