Friday, 11 February 2011


That's passive! From Anne Chadwick

Bleeding from the eyeballs hampered my ability to write this post.
My ability to write this post was hampered by the blood streaming from my eyes
Writing this post, I was hampered by the blood streaming from my eyes.
I was hampered by the blood streaming from my eyes, when I wrote this post.

I spent the afternoon using FIND to hunt down and eliminate clunky past tense constructions in my novel. The aim was to make sure I was writing in the active voice, rather than slipping into passive.
Active voice emphasises the doer:
Selene wielded the gnarled branch high.
The passive voice moves the focus of a sentence away from the doer:
The emphasis in the passive voice is always on what is happening, not who is doing it.
The gnarled branch was wielded high.
The gnarled branch was wielded high by Selene.
Passive voice has its uses (humour amongst them,)  but, nothing beats the active construction.
It is best to write in active voice when possible. If you want to identify a sentence written in the passive voice, watch out for these keywords (remember the eyes bleeding thing?) :

has been
have been
will be

In order to change passive voice to active voice, you need to know who or what the subject of the sentence is and then rewrite the sentence so the subject is before the object.

You can simplify the writing in past tense verb forms too – present :

ACTIVE: I taught                     PASSIVE: was (have been) taught [by someone];
ACTIVE: I learned                  PASSIVE:  It was (has been) learned [by someone].


I could only shrug; I had been too wrapped up in sickly, nervous tension to pay much attention to the words coming out of his mouth.
I shrugged. (Wrapped in sickly, nervous tension,) I’d paid no attention to the words coming out of his mouth
(Some times pluperfect in disguise - I’d/I had - is the answer too)

A small dictionary, and old encyclopaedia and several Internet sites were harmed, in the making of this blogpost.


  1. Great tips.

    Active sentenses make for a lot easier reading.


  2. Great post, Elaine!

    I avoid WAS like the plague, but these others can easily sneak into a writer's prose. Thanks for pointing them out to us.


  3. This was a great post. Now you've got me doubting myself.

  4. Good post Elaine! I really like the examples you used.

  5. I always remember active as "someone doing something" and passive as "something is being done to someone." (Where someone/something are interchangeable.) Every once in a while, passive has its place and not just when you can't figure out how to reword without changing the meaning. Passive places emphasis on the object that has been acted upon and sometimes you want that emphasis. It's one of those "know the rules before you break them and when you do break them, do it judiciously." There's almost always a need and a way to write with active voice.

  6. Hi Misha
    If active makes it easier on the reader, it has to be a good thing.

    Hi Michael
    It helps if you avoid words from the outset.

    Hi Wendy
    Be not doubtful.
    Language evolves.
    I wrote my first ever ms entirely in passive construction using pluperfect past. I'm still playing with it. It is my trainer novel.

    Hi Summer
    Thank you :)
    It represented the constant round of decisions.
    Wouldn't it be nice to just write?

  7. Hi Kristie
    Ain't that the truth :)Thanks for commenting.

  8. Such a good post, thank you. I try sooooo hard to rid my texts of anything superfluous - it's hard sometimes.

  9. Thanks for the post! Word is always pointing out passive sentences, and I know I often have them; this was helpful!

  10. Occasionally I float between active and passive voice, but this post helps address some of those issues. Thanks

  11. Hi Margo
    That is a balancing act - sparse verses superfluous ;)

    Hi TGE
    Word.It is a useful tool.It tries to help, whenever it can :)

  12. I wrote a letter to the word was once...maybe I should resend it and CC: all of the other passive words too.

    Thanks for the reminder!

  13. Hi Kelly
    I'm trapped inside a loop attempting to rid my novel of the word COULD. Normally, an inoffensive word - it's like Japanese bind weed or whatever :D

  14. When I first started I couldn't believe how much I used passive voice. There are times that I still slip into it. I guess some habits just don't die easily :)

  15. When I first started out, my chief vice was "could" as in: She could see the road; she could feel her heart pounding. I followed the rule that if your sentence conveys the same meaning without a word as with it, then lose the word.

    Thanks for the tips!

  16. Hi Elaine

    ah! Such wise words and, for me, so pertinent. I am an absolute shocker when it comes to the passive voice. I think it is because I have been writing technical reports for nearly 30 years where everything has to be in the passive voice. I am so used to the passive voice that sometimes the active voice sounds clunky to me!

    Thanks for posting


  17. Hi Sherrie
    Me too! Passive was my default mode. They creep in less these days. The EDGWARE re-edit is interesting because, at the time, I thought I'd weeded every passive sentence I could out. Beginner!

    Hi Dan
    COULD was an addiction. I needed therapy to let go of it ;)

    Hi Dom
    Passive is the voice of report writing. Good luck with upgrading your protocols ;)

  18. WOOW.. I hit the print button and stuck this page in my "writing tips" notebook. Thanks a bunchies.

  19. Great post. It's a good reminder for me to check the ones I don't watch for as closely.

  20. Hi Lisa
    :) *blushes
    I hope it comes in useful.

    Hi Kimberly
    I have the words on a card above my desk but they still creep through onto the page ;)