Eliminating Passive Voice

cited with permission from Jocelyn Parr.

The passive voice deadens writing.

The passive voice complicates meaning unnecessarily.

The passive voice is lazy.

Here are some ways to eliminate it from your writing.

Strategies for Eliminating Be Verbs

1) Change the be verb to a strong verb:

Example: Tony is afraid of notebook checks.

Tony fears notebook checks.

Example: Billy is alarmed by the proximity of the shark.

Billy motors away from the shark.

2) Eliminate the be verb by writing one or more showing sentence.

Example: Alligators are mean.

The alligator, angry at being disturbed, lurched forward and swallowed the boy’s cat. Unsatisfied, the grouchy gator swam circles around the screaming toddler, showing all the while the kitten’s severed head.

3) Combine sentences to eliminate the be verb.

Example: The inefficient time manager is unfulfilled. He heads to bed, disappointed, despite having finished his to do list.

The inefficient time manager heads to bed, unfulfilled, having checked everything off on his unprioritized to do list.

4) Eliminate the entire sentence if its omission does not change the meaning of the passage.

5) Leave the be verb if changing it alters the meaning,diminishes the passage, or makes the structure unworkable.


cited with permission from Theresa Senft.


(adopted from a conversation I read here: http://snarkygrammarguide.blogspot.com/2012/10/zombies-hot-new-grammar-secret-weapon.html)

Here’s an important rule of thumb:

Generally speaking, in non-fiction writing, it’s best to write in the active voice. Sometimes, you have reasons for choosing the passive voice, and that’s okay—as long as you designate an agent (i.e. the reader can make out who is doing what in the sentence.) Passive voice without an agent is always confusing and gets people lower marks.

Here’s an example:

NOT GREAT:  The lab results were validated.  (passive voice)

OKAY: The lab results were validated through later trials. (passive voice with agent)

BEST: Later trials validated the test results. (active voice)

The steps below are useful for helping with this.

1. Using your word processor, search your paper, and look for each time  “ed” shows up at the end of any word.

2. Look at each word ending in “ed” and ask yourself: “Is this word a verb?” 

•  If your answer is “no,” then you are fine. 

•  If your answer is “yes,” go to number 3.

3. Look at the word prior to the verb ending in “ed” andask yourself:  “Is this word one of the following:  is, are,was, were, have been, has been, will be?

•  If no, then you are fine.

•  If yes, go to number 4.

4. Could you end this sentence with the phrase”by zombies”?

Look  at the entire sentence that contains the verb ending in “ed” and ask yourself,“Could I end this sentence with the phrase, ‘By zombies’?”

•  No?  (e.g. “The lab results were validatedthrough later trials”) Then you are fine.

•  Yes? (e.g. “The lab results were latervalidated”….by zombies?) Then go to #5

5. Re-write your sentence in one of two ways. Let’s say your sentence is “She wants to be noticed.” 


•  End with an agent (“She wants to be noticed by reporters.”)

•  Write in the active voice (“She wants reporters to notice her.” )


•  Active voice is almost always strongest choice. 

•  Passive voice with an agent is next in terms of reader desirea blility.

•  Passive voice without agent is always confusing and gets people lower marks.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s