Understanding it is the first step to writing active messages
What is the passive voice?
“It’s Yoda talk,” says one of my clients.
Well … not exactly. Here are three ways to activate the passive voice:
1. Remember what your third-grade teacher Mrs. Webb told you.
The first step to activating the passive voice is to understand it.
There are two types of voices, plus one subtype.
|Identify the passive voice|
|Type of Sentence||Example||Form|
|Active voice||Dog bites man.||Subject, verb, object.|
|Passive voice||Man is bitten by dog.||Object, verb, subject.|
|Passive voice, agent deleted||Man is bitten.||Object, verb.|
i. Active voice. To understand the passive voice, you first need to understand the active voice. The active voice follows the simple sentence structure:
Dog bites man.
This sentence also illustrates the way we should construct our phrases: in the active voice. In the active voice, the subject (dog) performs the action (bites) on the object (man).
ii. Passive voice. Invert that simple sentence structure, and you’ve got the passive voice:
Man is bitten by dog.
In the passive voice, the subject, the man, is now the thing acted upon. And now there’s a prepositional phrase: The person or the thing doing the action is introduced with the word “by.”
ii-b. Passive voice, agent deleted. Sometimes, writers leave out altogether the person or thing doing the action. That leads to the passive voice with the agent deleted:
Man is bitten.
If you can add “by my grandma” to the end of a sentence, it’s probably passive voice, agent deleted, says Tim Burnett, who handles Express communications at FedEx. Example: “Dog is bitten by my grandma.”
2. Make sure the subject is doing the verb.
An editor friend was once surprised on reviewing an engineer’s contribution to a company newsletter to find that it was absolutely free of the passive voice.
When the editor praised the engineer, he said, a bit huffily: “I know that each sentence needs a subject and a verb and that the subject should be doing the verb.”
That’s as good an explanation as I’ve heard on how to write in the active voice. (It’s so good, I’ve threatened to make it a T-shirt or tattoo!)
In active sentences, the subject of the sentence does the action. In passive voice, the subject is acted upon, or receives the action. Then there’s a transitive verb in there connecting the two.
To write in the active voice, make sure the subject is doing the verb:
- Identify the verb.
- Figure out who’s doing that verb.
- Move that subject in front of the verb.
Take “Dog is bitten by man.”
- What’s the verb? Is bitten.
- Who’s doing the biting? Man.
- Move “man” in front of “bite.” You get “Man bites dog.”
3. Search for forms of the verb to be.
Many writers, confused about the passive voice, believe that every sentence that contains a form of the verb to be forms the passive.
Not so. While every passive sentence contains a verb phrase including a form of to be, not every verb phrase including to be forms the passive.
A sentence is passive only when it uses the passive construction — the object-verb-subject or object-verb structure. “Dog was bitten by man,” for instance, or “Dog was bitten.”
That said, passive sentences do always contain a form of the verb “to be”: “Dog was bitten by man” or “Dog was bitten.”
So, if you’re stuck, use your Microsoft Word “find” function to search for these words:
|Present||am, is, are|
If you find them, check the sentence structure. If the subject is doing the action, you’re fine. If the object is having the action done to it, it’s passive. Recast.
4. Let technology identify the passive voice.
Still having trouble identifying the passive voice?
Use Microsoft Word’s Readability Statistics to find the percentage of passive voice you’ve used in your copy. Aim for zero.
And use Microsoft Word’s grammar check to find the passive voice in your copy and get suggested rewrites. The Hemingway App is even more helpful.
Once you find passive sentences, activate the passive voice. Explain who did what to whom.