Add Power to Your Writing: Understand passive and active verbs

The Grammar PatrolWe (Edith Hope Fine and Judith Josephson) are the Grammar Patrol. Both of us taught for years and are now writers, with thirty plus books between us, including our two popular grammar guides, Nitty-Gritty Grammar and More Nitty-Gritty Grammar. For close to twenty years, we taught writing and grammar basics and now we blog about grammar for writers.

Active or Passive Verbs? (Go-getters or Couch Potatoes?)

Active Woman Walking Vigorously

On an “active” day, you might walk five miles and complete your “To Do” list by noon. On a more “passive” day, you might meditate in the morning, spend the afternoon reading, and settle in for a good movie in the evening. Both kinds of days can be worthy and satisfying.

Lazy Guy Couch Potato

But in writing, and with verbs in particular, the “active” voice usually packs a bigger punch than the “passive” voice. These terms may seem confusing. We met some folks in our grammar refresher classes who equated “passive” with “past tense.” That’s not the case.


Active Voice/Passive Voice

So what’s the deal with active and passive verbs?

In the active voice, the person or thing doing the action is in charge. The reader is instantly drawn to the subject of the sentence.


The jury announced its verdict.

The jury is front and center.


In the passive voice, the subject receives the action or is acted upon.


The verdict was announced by the jury.

Note how the verdict has taken the spotlight.


Newspaper headlines use the active voice, not only for its immediacy, but because it’s a shorter form.


American Pharaoh wins 2015 Triple Crown


The 2015 Triple Crown was won by American Pharaoh

Pretty clunky, huh? A headline like this one is unlikely.


Passive Tips: To Be Verbs, Key Prepositions

Be on the lookout for the helping verbs was, were, and will be in the passive voice. They can often signal the  passive voice when paired with prepositions that follow the verb, like by, for, and to.

Check out these examples of the passive that combine helping verbs with prepositions:

The walleye was caught by Herb.

     was cleaned by     will be faxed to     were polished for     were created to


Which Voice to Use?

In most kinds of writing, the active voice adds punch and power to sentences. It’s more clear, direct, and takes fewer words than the passive voice.

When you work your “active voice” magic on the sentence above, you get this:

Herb caught the walleye.

Occasional use of the passive is fine.

A league playoff game is scheduled for Sunday.

In scientific or formal writing, using the passive voice is more common:

“Half the test subjects were given the medication and half a placebo.”

(May robust health help the placebo subjects!)

Sometimes, you’ll use the passive voice to put the emphasis on the most important idea in the sentence. During a root canal procedure, the comfort of the patient may be the most important idea:

The patient was given laughing gas by Dr. Paine.

If you were to run Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” through your grammar checker, it would flag many uses of the passive. Use common sense—we wouldn’t touch a single comma, let alone a verb, of Mr. Lincoln’s moving words.


TIP: Avoid mixing the active voice with the passive voice in the same sentence or paragraph.


Bipsy dimmed the lights as the wine was poured.

[active]                                           [passive]


Just for fun, highlight all the verbs in a piece of writing you’re currently working on. What do you find? Active voice or passive voice?

Please Share

For more on the active and passive voice, check our zany Nitty-Gritty Grammar and More Nitty-Gritty Grammar guides (Random House). And send us bloopers you hear or see. We love hearing from you.

Heads up! Pop Quiz coming soon!

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