Ask, who’s doing the verb?
How can you activate a passive sentence?
1. Identify the passive voice.
First, identify passive sentences.
The active voice uses simple sentence structure:
Subject, verb, object.
Man bites dog.
Invert that simple sentence structure, and you’ve got a passive voice sentence:
Object, verb, subject.
Dog is bitten by man.
Note how the subject of the sentence is no longer performing the action of the verb.
Passive voice, agent deleted
Sometimes we drop the subject altogether:
Dog is bitten.
As a friend from FedEx says, “If you can add by my grandma to the end of a sentence, it’s probably passive voice, agent deleted.”
Dog is bitten by my grandma.
2. Avoid passive problems
You can see the problems. A passive sentence:
Reduces comprehension. Passive voice is harder to understand than active voice, found G. R. Klare in a review of 36 readability studies. In fact, of the Top 5 characteristics that make sentences harder to read, passive voice ranked No. 2.
In another study, Robert Charrow and linguist Veda Charrow found that jurors understood active passages 31% better than passive ones.
Is longer than active voice. Passive voice can take up to two-thirds more words than the active voice.
Has a slippery, untouched-by-human-hands feel. Compare: “I made mistakes” to “Mistakes were made.”
With the passive voice, it sounds as if nobody was in the room when it happened. As a result, the passive voice hurts your credibility by making readers wonder what you’re hiding. As Joseph M. Williams, author of Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, says:
“Choose the passive when you don’t know who did it, your readers don’t care who did it, or you don’t want them to know who did it.”
“Don’t know, don’t care, don’t want them to know” shouldn’t happen very often.
Saps energy from sentences. Passive voice transforms energetic verbs — bites, for instance — into forms of the verb to be, such as is bitten.
Isn’t conversational. We don’t speak in the passive voice, so we shouldn’t write that way.
3. 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 every 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!)
To activate the passive voice, read the sentence and find the verb:
Figure out who’s doing the verb:
Put that person in front of the the active verb:
Man bites dog.
Now your sentence includes subject, verb, object — in the right order. It’s active!
And that’s how you avoid passive voice misuse.