Getting Active About Passive Voice

By Jocelyn Nash Carlin

This past week I spent some time reviewing an older story to see if it was worth revisiting. In the process, I discovered a disturbing amount of passive voice. As a result, I think it’s time for a quick review of this basic principle of fiction writing: Active verb construction is (nearly) always better than passive verb construction.

*Disclaimer 1: Not all uses of “to be” are passive construction. You don’t have to eliminate all uses of “to be.”

*Disclaimer 2: Not all “-ing” words are passive construction. You don’t have to eliminate all uses of “-ing.”

*Disclaimer 3: Though you should try to use active construction whenever possible when writing fiction and narrative non-fiction, there are occasions when passive construction will work better for the flow of your narrative than active construction. Just be sure to use your passive voice thoughtfully and sparingly.

With those out of the way, how do you recognize and change passive construction?

Here’s the most basic rule:

If the subject of your sentence (the person, place, thing or idea) is performing an action, your construction is active. If the subject of your sentence is being acted upon (or receiving) the action, your construction is passive.

For example: “Zombies killed Josh,” is active. “Josh was killed by zombies,” is passive.

Rebecca Johnson, a professor at USMC, came up with a fun rule to help identify passive construction. She said, “if you can add the phrase ‘by zombies’ after the verb, you have passive voice.”

Let’s play:

“The wall was toppled [by zombies].”

“Toby ate [by zombies] lunch.”

“The bill was signed [by zombies].”

“The story was told [by zombies].”

“Josh threw [by zombies] the ball.”

I’m sure you can tell where the “by zombies” addition works and where it doesn’t. The sentences where it works are in passive voice. All those examples were in the Past Simple Tense. Spotting the passive seems more complicated in other tenses, but the zombie rule still applies.

Let’s look at the Present Continuous Tense:

“Donna is singing [by zombies] a song.”

“A song is being sung [by zombies].”

See? The zombie rule still works.

Some writers argue that you should avoid using “-ing” constructions anyway (see what I did there?), for stylistic reasons. However, I say: your style is your style – not someone else’s. For a good review of when “-ing” is passive vs. when it functions as an adjective or present participle, see this blog post. And for a great breakdown of what active vs. passive construction looks like in all the verb tenses, see this post.

I hope this quick review will help exercise your grammar muscles as you get ready for more writing and editing.

*No words were harmed [by zombies] while writing this blog post.

ETA: the original link I provided for explaining present participles also includes a passive voice mis-identification, so to eliminate confusion I’ve edited to provide a link to a different article. Anyone interested can see the original link here.


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5 responses to “Getting Active About Passive Voice

  • alice

    Great blog post on passive voice. I learned some new things.

    • alice

      I’m a bit confused by the examples in the blogs you referenced though. One says “The dog is eating” is passive. The other says “He was driving” is active. I’m not sure what the difference in these constructions are. They both use “to be” is the same way.

      • Writing Snippets

        I totally get the confusion. This is exactly why I hate English grammar. It’s confusing and inconsistent and it sucks. Any way, I linked to the post at “Write Wow!” because they did a good job explaining the use of “-ing” present participles, but you’re right. They made an error on that one. “The dog is eating” is NOT passive, it’s the present continuous tense, as the post at Study and points out. The present continuous and past continuous are often lumped together with passive as undesirable because of the “to be” construction, but they are not, technically speaking, passive voice.

        Man, I hate English grammar. It’s the worst.


      • Writing Snippets

        Okay, I found a different article explaining the present participle without including any incorrect examples of passive voice. I’ve edited the post to link to the article with no mistakes rather than the one with mistakes. Thanks for calling my attention to it. That’s what I get for researching my topic late at night!


  • Writing in English: active/passive voice | Premier Taaltraining English Blog

    […] Getting Active About Passive Voice ( […]

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