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Get Rid of Passive Voice


Get Rid of PassiveVoice2_j“Get Rid of Passive Voice” by Joan Y. Edwards

“A style that consists of passive constructions will sap the reader’s energy. The difference between an active-verb style and a passive-verb style–in clarity and vigor–is the difference between life and death for a writer.”
-William Zinsser On Writing Well.

The detective waited. He said to the police officer. “I saw it with my own eyes. This author used passive voice in a manuscript.”

The policeman took off his cap, scratched his head and said to the author, “Get rid of it.”

The author put both hands out palms up. “But, Officer, I don’t know how.”

The detective and officer threw up their hands in disgust. They pointed at the author and said, “Learn about passive voice in 24 hours or we’ll book you.”

I hope you enjoyed my humor. I certainly hope you don’t get in a situation like that. However, if you do, I’m here to help you.

Active voice helps insure clarity of meaning. Every word in your manuscript should have a reason for being there. You want each word to carry a clear message in your manuscript. If your manuscript has too many words, eliminating sentences that use passive voice will trim your word count and add to your clarity at the same time. Rambling on and on in passive voice loses readers. Active voice ropes them in and keeps them reading your manuscript from beginning to the very end.

Here is an explanation with examples to help you understand about voice. There are two voices: Active Voice and Passive Voice. Active voice has the noun subject (doer) verb order.  The verb to be used as a linking verb shows the condition or existence of the subject. Passive Voice usually uses a form of the verb to be and a past participle of a verb: is, are, was, were, being, had been. The subject is not named before the verb in a sentence using passive voice.

In active voice, the subject does the action. The order is simple – subject followed by verb.

David threw the ball. Who threw the ball? David threw the ball.
Examples of sentences using active voice:

  1. Stephanie lost the money.
  2. Mother bought jewelry.
  3. James had sung the songs.
  4. Nellie was writing letters.
  5. Phillip was building the dams.
  6. The hurricane had damaged the houses.

In passive voice, the subject (doer) is not before the verb. The subject is absent or it may come in another part of the sentence.

The ball was thrown. The ball did what? Nothing. It was the receiver of the action. On its own, a ball can’t do anything.

The sentences that follow are in the passive voice. No one knows who did the losing, the buying, or the building. It is not mentioned in the sentence before the verb. The subject is missing. The doer of the action is missing. In passive voice, the direct object of a sentence is written before the verb where the subject usually is.  #6 is still a passive voice sentence because hurricane is not before the verb damaged.

Examples of sentences using passive voice where the subject – the doer is missing.

  1. Money was lost.
  2. Jewelry was bought.
  3. The songs had been sung.
  4. The letters were being written.
  5. The dams were being built.
  6. Houses had been damaged by the hurricane.

Think about it.  It’s harder for people to read and figure out what’s really going on when authors use the passive voice. Therefore, editors and readers like to read books written in active voice. Search for the passive voice in your manuscript. If you use Microsoft Word, it has a review tool to check spelling and grammar. If a sentence is in the passive voice, it will tell you and suggest that you revise the sentence. Remember when you change the passive voice to the active voice, put the subject (the doer) before the verb.

Active-Passive Voice Quiz for you.

Here are ten sentences: Decide if they are active or passive voice and why? The answers are below.

1. Jason taught the neighborhood kids how to play football.
2 At the garage sale, profits were made.
3. The firemen put the hoses down.
4. A severe weather prediction had been announced earlier.
5. A few actors whispered their words.
6. The weather man had announced a severe weather prediction earlier.
7. Words were whispered.
8. Cecilia made profits at the garage sale.
9. The hoses were put down.
10.Kids were taught how to play football.

Answers:

1. Active voice. The subject is Jason.  Jason did the action. Jason taught.
2. Passive voice. No subject. No doer. It doesn’t tell who made the profits.
3. Active voice. The subject is firemen. The firemen did the action. The firemen put the hose down.
4. Passive voice. No subject. No doer. It doesn’t tell who made the severe weather predictions.
5. Active voice. Subject verb order. The subject is actors. Actors did the action. Actors whispered.
6. Active voice. Subject verb order. The subject is man. Man did the action. Man made.
7. Passive voice. No subject. No doer. It doesn’t tell who whispered.
8. Active voice. Subject verb order. The subject is Cecilia. Cecilia did the action. Cecilia made profits.
9.Passive voice. No subject. No doer. It doesn’t tell who put the hoses down.
10. Passive voice. No subject. No doer. It doesn’t tell who taught the kids to play football.

Active voice clarifies meaning and makes your writing stronger.  Being able to recognize if a sentence is active or passive voice will help you get rid of the passive voice and bring on the active voice in your writing.

Please leave questions or comments. It’s fun to hear from you. Good luck with your writing.

Celebrate your love of life.
Never Give Up
Joan Y. Edwards

Copyright © 2013 Joan Y. Edwards

References:

  1. Jenny Any Dots. “Some Quotes on the Passive Voice:” http://thecommonroomblog.com/2008/06/some-quotes-on-the-passive-voice.html
  2. Ask Meta Filter.com. “Should I Avoid the Passive Voice in an Undergraduate History Thesis:”http://ask.metafilter.com/14391/Should-avoid-the-passive-voice-in-an-undergraduate-history-thesis
  3. Larry C. William Strunk’s The Elements of Style, scroll down to Section III, Part 11 (eleven).
  4. My English Grammar. “Forms of Verb:” http://www.myenglishgrammar.com/english/list-7-forms-of-verb.html
  5. My English Grammar. “Passive Quiz:” http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/GRAMMAR/quizzes/passive_quiz.htm
  6. http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/GRAMMAR/to_be.htm
  7. Richard Nordquist. “Passive Voice” http://grammar.about.com/od/pq/g/pasvoiceterm.htm
  8. Richard Nordquist. “The President’s Shocking Use of the Active Voice:” http://grammar.about.com/b/2009/02/11/the-presidents-shocking-use-of-the-active-voice.htm
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21 Responses

  1. Loved it. It cleared a lot up for me. Thanks again. going to be at Muse Online this year? I’d love the chance to learn more from you.
    This is ModKitty. 🙂

    Like

    • Dear ModKitty,
      Thank you for writing. I am glad it cleared up a lot for you. I plan to do my workshop, “30 Ways to Correct, Trim, and Enhance Your Manuscript”. Active and Passive voice is definitely part of my guide. I’ll also do a pitch workshop and a PubSub3rdFri (Pub Subber) workshop. I am honored that you would love the chance to learn more from me.
      Celebrate you. Never Give Up.
      Joan Y. Edwards

      Like

  2. Joan,
    I can recognize passive voice, but I slip into it anyway sometimes. Your post was helpful and the humorous scene to open here was entertaining. I’d love to see the detective, police officer, and author appear in other posts. Maybe you can give them names. Watch out, they may demand their own blog or at least a tab on this one! Nice drawing and caption. Did you do it on your iPad?

    Like

    • Dear Linda,
      Thanks for writing. I wrote this because you requested a blog about active and passive voice. I’m glad you liked it. It is easy to slip into passive voice. It’s a natural way of speaking. I’m glad you liked the humorous scene at the opening. Giving the detective, police officer, and author names and even pictures of them would be fun. I plan to self-publish my 30 ways book. It would be fun to have these characters in it.
      I used a program called “The Logo Creator.” They have items you can use, or you can use your own images. You can use different fonts, different backgrounds, different colors, etc. It’s for the main computer. I’ve really enjoyed using it. It’s a way I can use graphic arts design. You can change the size, too. I’ve bought several of the packages. I promised myself I would do more with the art, illustrating end. I’m trying to empower myself. The software has a few kinks in it, but I’m working my way around them.
      Celebrate you and your willingness to share!
      Never Give Up
      Joan Y. Edwards

      Like

  3. Joan, first I love your sense of humor! Second, I struggle with active vs. passive. I wish I had someone explain it to me as clearly as you just did when I first started to write. 🙂 Thank you!

    Like

    • Dear Kathleen,
      Thank you for writing. I’m glad you love my sense of humor. I hope that your struggle with active vs. passive voice is diminished now. I’m glad that my explanation was clear. I wanted it to be clear for you.
      Celebrate you and your sense of humor.
      Never Give Up
      Joan Y. Edwards

      Like

  4. Terrific info. I might have to quote you in my W2I workshop in March! Do you mind?

    Like

    • Dear Joyce,
      Thanks for writing. I’m glad you believe this is terrific information. I am humbled and honored that you want to quote me in your workshop in March. Of course, you may quote me. What are you quoting?

      Celebrate you and your love of writing historical fiction
      Never Give Up
      Joan Y. Edwards

      Like

  5. Joan, great information. Boy, between learning the writing and marketing ropes, it’s no wonder we have time to eat and sleep! 🙂

    Thanks for always providing valuable content.

    Like

    • Dear Karen,
      Thanks for writing. Thanks for saying this was great information. You are right, learning the writing and marketing ropes doesn’t leave us much time for eating and sleeping. I believe you do a great job of both!

      Celebrate your love of writing.
      Never Give Up
      Joan Y. Edwards

      Like

  6. Excellent post! … this should be required reading for every newbie and not-so-newbie writer

    Like

    • Dear Widdershins,
      Thanks for writing. I’m glad you think this is an excellent post. I am honored that you believe every newbie and not-so newbie writer should read it. You always make me feel good about myself. Thank you for that.

      Celebrate your love of writing.
      Never Give Up
      Joan Y. Edwards

      Like

  7. Hi Joan,
    Appreciated your active-passive learning points. Passivity is one of my repeated sins in writing.

    Ms Active wakes up in the morning: aggressive, progressive, creative, with initiative, and is attractive

    Ms Passive rolls over in the morning: unresistive, submissive, receptive, inactive, and unattractive

    Barbara Lunow

    Like

    • Dear Barbara,
      Thanks for leaving a comment. I’m glad you appreciated my active-passive learning points. I love your sense of humor of giving character traits to passive and active voice. You are very creative. Thanks for making me laugh.

      Celebrate your love for the different languages of native Indonesia.
      Never Give Up
      Joan Y. Edwards

      Like

  8. Joan, Thank you for this wonderful information. Active and passive have always been a problem for me. (uh,oh I think I just wrote that in passive?) Your information and examples on this subject are a huge help. I LOVED the quiz!!

    Like

  9. […] Click this link to take Joan’s Active-Passive Voice Quiz […]

    Like

    • Dear Kathy,
      Thank you for posting my article about “How to Get Rid of Passive Voice?” on your blog. I am honored greatly. You have a lot of great information for writers and illustrators on your blog.
      Celebrate you.
      Never Give Up
      Joan Y. Edwards

      Like

  10. Dear Joan,
    Thank you for the many interesting things you write, which I have been reading recently with pleasure, but there are a few misunderstandings here. Firstly, people tend to confuse “passive voice” with “passivity”, thus linking a grammatical term with a condition usually considered negative. Secondly, passive voice doesn’t always exclude the doer of the action. It is perfectly normal to say (random examples follow): “Great deeds are expected from all of you this day”, or “The water had been whipped into a frenzy by the approaching hurricane”. You might not even notice the passive voice being used here: “Why was the bread thrown out, but not the butter?”, “A vast new field of enquiry was suddenly opened up”, or “Her book is now being praised all over town.” Passive voice simply shifts the emphasis from the doer to whoever / whatever experiences the action of the verb – and this is sometimes exactly what we want to do.
    Passive voice also adds some variety to what could otherwise become very boring sentence structures (subject-verb-object), repeated ad nauseam. I liken it to using the colour purple in painting: you might not use it a lot, but without it you are losing some valuable extra shades and tones.
    By the way, Strunk and White quote some examples of passive voice that are in fact incorrect.
    My apologies if I sound like a mature age teacher (’cause I am one!) brought up on English classics, Latin, German, French and a number of other languages, which meant that I certainly understood most grammatical principles. I appreciate the efforts of anyone who loves to write in our amazingly beautiful and varied language, which allows us to express so many different shades of meaning in so many different ways. Thank you for letting me express myself here, and I hope maybe a new line of thought has been opened up!

    Like

    • Dear Cynthia,
      Thanks for writing and clarifying a few things about passive voice and writing.

      Celebrate you.
      Never Give Up
      Joan Y. Edwards

      Like

  11. I prefer passive voice in many cases, and I will not be tricked by any of your commandments into utilising active voice instead.

    Like

    • Dear Klaus Schilling,
      You are welcome to use Passive Voice. I’m not commanding you.

      Celebrate you and your writing!
      Never Give Up
      Joan

      Like

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