Tag Archives: active voice

Replacing The Passive

Weight_lifterBecause active voice is stronger than passive, writing instructors generally encourage authors to avoid the latter. By way of review,

Passive voice is a grammatical term identifying a particular subject/verb relationship—a specialized one that runs counter to the usual active voice.

Typically, the subject of a sentence is the agent that does the action of a sentence. In the examples below, the subject of each of these simple sentences is the agent doing the action.

  • The writer cleaned off her desk. [Who cleaned? writer]
  • The editor marked the final page of the manuscript. [Who marked? editor.]
  • The publisher congratulated the team on a job well-done. [Who congratulated? publisher.

In sentences utilizing the passive voice, however, the subject is actually the recipient of the action. Again, examples may be helpful.

  • The book was published by WaterBrook. [The subject book is the object of the action was published rather
    than the agent doing the action.]
  • The email was sent from her phone. [The subject email is the object of the action was sent rather than the agent doing the action.]
  • Another writer was added to the group without advance warning. [The subject writer is the object of the action was added rather than the agent doing the action.]

(from “Clarifying What’s Passive”).

Understanding the passive construction is a good start, but writers also need to know how to revise those sentences and replace the passive verbs with active ones instead.

Writers utilize the passive construction for primarily three reasons: (1) they don’t know who the active agent is, (2) they want to emphasize the object, or (3) they don’t want to point fingers.

Consequently an author might write sentences like these:

The article was shared on both Facebook and Twitter. [The active agent is unknown.]

No one could verify if the film was seen by as many viewers as the theater reported. [The clause if the film was seem by as many viewers emphasizes the subject of that clause, film.]

The car was towed to a nearby garage. [The writer chooses not to point out what agent did the action.]

The key to constructing a sentence in the active voice is to make the subject of the sentence the active agent. The first step is to restructure the sentence so that the subject receiving the action (in the examples above, the subjects in question are article, film, and car respectively) becomes the object of the active verb.

To create the active verb, the writer must remove the form of the be helping verb (was in each of the examples above; other possibilities include were, is, are, been, and being) and any other accompanying helping verbs (such as have or had), then choose the appropriate tense of the action verb.

Finally, the writer must insert a new subject. Often times the agent in a passive sentence shows up as part of a prepositional phrase, usually introduced with by. Those sentences are the easiest to replace: . . . by my neighbors yields the subject neighbors; . . . by the publisher yields the subject publisher.

Putting the three steps together, the passive sentence The tree limbs were broken by the wind becomes the active sentence The wind broke the tree limbs.

The harder kinds of sentences to correct are those which do not name the agent at all. Sometimes context will yield the agent and sometimes an indefinite pronoun can do the job. The examples above which do not have agents might become one of the following:

    * Any number of blog visitors shared the article on both Facebook and Twitter. [Subject determined by a context clue.]
    * Many shared the article on both Facebook and Twitter. [Indefinite pronoun used as the subject.]
    * The company associated with AAA towed the car to a nearby garage. [Subject determined by a context clue.]
    * Somebody towed the car to a nearby garage. [Indefinite pronoun used as the subject.]

If there is no context clue and an indefinite pronoun won’t work as the subject, or if the writer’s intent is to feature the receiver of the action, he may need an entirely different sentence structure, perhaps incorporating the information contained in the passive sentence with another sentence, perhaps adding details, or perhaps reordering the sentence and choosing a different verb:

    * After being towed to the nearest garage, the car sat unattended for three days. [Incorporated with another sentence.]
    * Both Facebook and Twitter became the perfect platform to share the article. [Detail added.]
    * The article received considerable attention on both Facebook and Twitter. [Reworded to maintain article as the subject since the writer wished to feature it.]

Unfortunately “the Passive Police” have mistakenly accused a few other sentence constructions of being passive, but they are innocent and therefore writers and/or editors do not need to replace them. For help determining which sentences are not passive despite the accusations, see “Clarifying What’s Passive”. 😉

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Clarifying What’s Passive

Instruction manuals and conference workshop teachers say to avoid passive voice, and there’s a good reason to do so, but in order to follow that bit of advice, we need to have a clear idea what we’re talking about. As it turns out, writers of all stripes — including experienced novelists, MFA grads, freelance writers, and editors — can be confused about the term “passive” when used in reference to writing.

Passive voice is a grammatical term identifying a particular subject/verb relationship — a specialized one that runs counter to the usual active voice.

Typically, the subject of a sentence is the agent that does the action of a sentence. In the examples below, the subject of each of these simple sentences is the agent doing the action.

  • The writer cleaned off her desk. [Who cleaned? writer]
  • The editor marked the final page of the manuscript. [Who marked? editor.]
  • The publisher congratulated the team on a job well-done. [Who congratulated? publisher.

In sentences utilizing the passive voice, however, the subject is actually the recipient of the action. Again, examples may be helpful.

  • The book was published by WaterBrook. [The subject book is the object of the action was published rather than the agent doing the action.]
  • The email was sent from her phone. [The subject email is the object of the action was sent rather than the agent doing the action.]
  • Another writer was added to the group without advance warning. [The subject writer is the object of the action was added rather than the agent doing the action.]

Writing instructors discourage passive voice. Since the subject is, for all practical purposes, supine, there’s not much for a reader to see in a sentence with a passive verb. Sentences, like good stories, need action. They need an agent who goes out and makes something happen. Passive characters make for boring stories, and passive subjects make for boring sentences.

So far, so good.

But here’s where problems start cropping up. Some writers (and even some editors) have taken the concept of active subjects to mean that all sentences must have action verbs. Any verb of being, then, gets lumped in with the passive voice. Here are a few sentences with verbs of being.

  • Despite everything that happened, the speaker still wasn’t late to the conference.
  • Her children are all gifted writers, singers, or artists.
  • I am certain about this one.

In each of these sentences, there is no action, so consequently, the subject is not passively standing by having some action foisted upon it. Rather, these sentences identify a condition or a state the subject is in. These are legitimate sentences and perform necessary functions in our writing. Still, they play a minor role and should not be overused.

Another form that gets dumped in with passive voice, and isn’t, is a helping verb working with a present participle (-ing form of a verb).

  • The writer is finishing the last chapter.
  • Her friend was posting on Facebook late at night.
  • The members of his critique group were giving line edits instead of overall impressions.

This kind of sentence is clearly not passive. In each of the examples the subject is the agent doing the action, and there is a strong action verb.

Is there a reason to steer clear of these sentences? Perhaps, but for an entirely different reason than for the erroneous accusation that they are passive.

Sentences with ongoing action, which is what this verb construction communicates, are a little harder for readers to visualize. The beginning of a thing, we can picture, but what do we see when the action is ongoing?

In addition, if an entire paragraph or page or scene contains numerous sentences with this construction, the repeated –ing acts like any other repetition: it becomes annoying.

Believe it or not, there’s one more sentence construction that gets accused of being passive, and it is innocent of the charge. These sentences are the ugly ducklings of writing. They have everything wrong with them — no action verb, the subject in the wrong place, and a bland, unspecific word up front. I’m talking about sentences that start with There is or Here are and the like.

  • There were three Facebook friend invitations in her email box.
  • Here is your coffee.
  • There aren’t any more books available.

These sentences are as legitimate as any other. They serve a necessary purpose, but like other sentences with verbs of being, they should not be overused.

So here’s what we covered:

  • Sentences with verbs in passive voice aren’t as strong as verbs in active voice. A writer would be wise to rewrite them.
  • Sentences with state of being verbs are perfectly fine but shouldn’t be overused.
  • Sentences with helping verbs and the present participle (-ing) form of a verb, while not passive, nevertheless should be used sparingly, largely because of repetition but also as a means to help readers visualize scenes.
  • Finally, sentences with construction similar to there is … may look passive, but they aren’t. The subject comes after the state of being verb, which adds to the impression that there’s a passive something going on. But remember, with no action verb in sight, there is no possibility of a passive subject. 😉

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