“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:
- Stephanie lost the money.
- Mother bought jewelry.
- James had sung the songs.
- Nellie was writing letters.
- Phillip was building the dams.
- 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.
- Money was lost.
- Jewelry was bought.
- The songs had been sung.
- The letters were being written.
- The dams were being built.
- 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.
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
- Jenny Any Dots. “Some Quotes on the Passive Voice:” http://thecommonroomblog.com/2008/06/some-quotes-on-the-passive-voice.html
- 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
- Larry C. William Strunk’s The Elements of Style, scroll down to Section III, Part 11 (eleven).
- My English Grammar. “Forms of Verb:” http://www.myenglishgrammar.com/english/list-7-forms-of-verb.html
- My English Grammar. “Passive Quiz:” http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/GRAMMAR/quizzes/passive_quiz.htm
- Richard Nordquist. “Passive Voice” http://grammar.about.com/od/pq/g/pasvoiceterm.htm
- 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
- Why Passive Voice Gets Writers in Trouble (asserttrue.blogspot.com)
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