Passive Writing: Spot it, kill it, bury it forever.


I usually try to steer away from giving writing advice here on AOR, but today I’m going to go against that. But be warned I’m not an editor, not a grammar expert, nor a writing expert. I’m merely a published author who once started off knowing nothing and over the years, through workshops, conferences, classes, and working with editors I’ve learned and grown my writing craft. So what I have to say today might not be for you…but then it might.

Recently, I’ve been involved in a few writing competitions and something I repeatedly saw popping up was passive writing. It’s something I struggled with in the past, so I thought you guys might like a few pointers I’ve learned along the way.

Switching a passive sentence to an active one is often as simple as deleting a single word or slightly changing the structure of your sentence.The difference in passive and active is all about the verb, its placement and other words around it. Passive voice uses other words with the verb which weakens it. The most common weakener I used to find in my writing was ‘to be’. The best way to help you understand this is through examples – so I’ll highlight the part of the sentence that makes it passive and follow with the active alternative.

P:This afternoon I will be coming to your house.

A: This afternoon I will come to your house.

P: A good time was had by Mary.

A: Mary had a good time.

Both the active and the passive versions of these sentences have the same meaning, but the active sounds better and is stronger writing.

If there are objects inย the active voice, the object usually becomes the subject in the passive voice. (The note is the object is the following example.)
P: I was handed a note by my friend

A: My friend handed me a note.

In summary, in most sentences with an action verb, the subject performs the action denoted by the verb. If the subject is being acted upon – the sentence passive. In the active version of the same sentence the subject acts upon the verb. Here’s another example;

A: The fish swam in the tank.

The fish (subject) are swimming. (verb)

This sentence can be made passive by altering the structure.

P: The tank was swum in by the fish.

swimming (verb) are the fish (subject)

Here are a couple of key indicators of a passive sentence;

  • the object of the active sentence becomes the subject of the passive sentence
  • the finite form of the verb is changed (to be + past participle)
  • the subject of the active sentence becomes the object of the passive sentence (or is dropped)

Oh, and the other trick I’ve heard a few times…

If you can insert by zombies into the sentence and have it still make sense, it’s passive!

OR

If it sounds like yoda said it, it’s passive.

passive

Phew… you guys still with me? I know it’s dry, but I tried to keep it as simple as possible. I hope I didn’t lose you ๐Ÿ™‚ If I missed anything feel free to post questions in the comments.

Laters!

_______

Stacey NashStacey Nash is the proud author of four published books, from which she hopes she eliminated all signs passive writing. To find out more about her books find her at www.stacey-nash.com, twitter or facebook.

 

5 Comments

  1. Nitpick: your house example is not passive voice, it’s just using a gerund (an “ing” word). The agent (I) is still the subject of the sentence, acting on the object (your house) and the agent cannot be removed from the sentence. The passive version of that sentence would be “This afternoon, your house will be visited by me”. (Slight modification because we don’t accept the intransitive form of ‘come’ as grammatically correct, as in “your house will be come to by me”). Otherwise, good article!

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