You might have heard the advice “change passive verbs to active verbs” but don’t quite know what that means—or why making this a habit can improve your writing.
Using active voice makes your writing better (most of the time) because:
- Think of the difference being a flowing stream (active voice) and a stagnant pond (passive voice). Your writing, like the water, flows better.
- Active verbs declare who or what is (or should be) performing the action; thus, you avoid confusion, guesswork, or dodging responsibility.
- Active verbs make your writing advance more smoothly so will get the ideas you want to convey more quickly.
- Sentences constructed in the active voice usually require fewer words, which leads to more concise writing.
How to Identify “Passive”
As a reader, if you can’t identify the doer of the action—the subject—the sentence has likely been constructed in the passive voice. Even when the subject is clear, two clues help you identify “passive” use: 1) the word “by” and 2) variations of the verb “to be.”
Consider these sentences:
Passive—“The juicy watermelon was eaten by the boy.”
Active—“The boy chomped into the watermelon’s juicy belly.”
Passive—“Employees are seen by their managers as responsive and enthusiastic.”
Active—“Managers see their employees as responsive and enthusiastic.”
In addition, passive verbs can foster weasel-like communication. They might be used to hide who’s responsible for an action, thus evading accountability rather than declaring it. For example, if a contract states “the rules for the homeowners will be enforced” but doesn’t note who will enforce those rules, what’s the result? Ambiguity. Confusion. Inaction.
How to Identify “Active”
The pattern for an active sentence is typically “subject + verb + direct object.” The direct object is the recipient of the action—that is, what or whom the verb affects. Example: The employees (subject) implement (verb) the new strategy (object). Who’s doing the action of implementing the new strategy? The employees. Thus, it’s clear the employees are accountable for the action.
Notice the passive construction in the following sentence and rewrite it, making sure to use an active verb. (Hint: You’ll need to make up a subject.)
Passive: This policy is being implemented in an effort to streamline our process.
Use the clues provided to identify any passive sentences you’ve written and then revise them. Not sure if you rewrote one or more of them correctly? Share them with me via email, and I’ll provide feedback.
Barbara McNichol is passionate about helping authors add power to their pen. To assist in this mission, she has created a Word Trippers Tips resource so you can quickly find the right word when it matters most. It allows you to improve your writing through excellent weekly resources in your inbox, including a Word Tripper of the Week for 52 weeks. Details at www.WordTrippers.com
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