Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Kick Out Passive Voice

"Kick Out 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 his manuscript."
     The policeman took off his cap, scratched his head and said to the author, "Kick it out."
     The author put both hands out palms up. "But, Officer, I don't know what passive voice is."
     The detective and officer threw up their hands in disgust. They pointed at the author and said, "Learn about passive voice and kick it out of your manuscript 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 a letter.
  5. The beaver was building a dam.
  6. The hurricane had damaged seventy houses.

In passive voice, the subject (doer) isn't 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 letter was being written.
  5. The dam was being built.
  6. Seventy 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 prefer books written in the 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. 

If you use a blog, before you publish, it asks if you want it to show you errors. It flags sentences that are in passive voice. 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. Make all ten choices, then check the answers. If you are able to recognize the passive voice, you'll be able to kick it out of your manuscripts.

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. Use active voice in your sentences. Your editor and readers will thank you.

Thank you for reading this article. Please leave questions or comments. It's fun to hear from you. Good luck with your writing.

Celebrate your life.
Never Give Up
Joan Y. Edwards

Joan's Elder Care Guide, Release Date with 4RV Publishing, June 2014


  1. Joan,
    Your humorous scene with the detective, policeman, and author was a clever introduction to this study. Thanks for all the examples.

  2. Dear Linda,
    Thanks for writing. I'm glad you thought the scene I put at the beginning was funny. I appreciate the time you take to read my blog posts. You are a great friend. Thanks for being a loyal follower.

    Never Give Up
    Joan Y. Edwards

  3. Joan taught another great lesson. I was taught. Which sentence is stronger? The one with Joan in it, of course! Thanks, Joan for another great moment

  4. Dear Ann,
    Thank you for writing. I love your sense of humor and your way of honoring me. You're welcome for the post. I'm glad it added a great moment to your day. You certainly added a great moment to mine.

  5. Dear Joan,
    This is an excellent post. I think it is so helpful I am going to print it out for reference. Way to go!

    1. Dear Megan,
      Thank you for writing. I am glad the info about passive voice helped you. So glad you are keeping it for future reference.

      Enjoy your day!

  6. Great reminder, Joan. I know all this, but sometimes I get lazy and write the easy way. Bad me. :) Saved your post for future reminders.

    1. Dear Beverly,
      Thank you for writing. You are right. Passive voice has a way of sneaking in the back door. I am honored that you saved it for later.

  7. Yea! Kick passive voice out. Of course, a few times passive voice is needed, but seldom.

  8. Dear Vivian,
    Thanks for writing. You are right. There are a few times that passive voice is necessary.

    Celebrate you.
    Never Give Up

  9. I love that quote and your little scene. For one exercise I did, I elminated all the "was" words. It was very interesting.