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Eliminate those awful passive sentences!

I’ve been finding more passive sentences in my reading lately. Whether you write fiction or non-fiction, scholarly articles or marketing bumph, this is an easy problem to fix.

And it is a problem. Passive sentences are longer and less interesting than active sentences. Let’s take a first-grade example:

Passive: The lazy dog was jumped over by the quick brown fox.
Active: The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.

As you can see, the active sentence is shorter—and it contains no less information.

Quick definition

For those who, like me, don’t want to count the number of years since junior-high grammar lessons, an active sentence is one where the subject of the sentence is the performer of the verb. In the example above, the fox performs or does the action—it jumps. The dog in the example is the object of the verb.

In the passive version, the subject of the sentence is the dog, but it is still the recipient or the object of the action.

In general, we writers should use active sentence almost all the time. “Active” should be the default setting. Yes, there are examples where a passive sentence is more appropriate, such as when the “do-er” of the verb is unknown or irrelevant. Here’s one from a novel I read recently:

  • “The sergeant moved to the living room window, where the screen has already been removed.”

Passive voice also makes sense in most lab reports, where the focus should be on the objects of observation. (If the result of the action depends on the person doing it, we don’t have science, we have magic.) We write “the contents of the beaker were decanted into test tubes,” instead of “I poured the contents of the beaker into test tubes.”

But most of the time, passive voice is not only unnecessary, it’s dull. It deadens interesting topics. Take these examples, which twist together active and passive clauses into horrifying tangles:

  • Some companies use high-pressure sales tactics to offer what is perceived to be a buoy to those who may feel they are drowning in debt.
  • 2012 will be characterized by a cacophony of trends that will converge, explode and create outstanding opportunities for organizations and individuals ready to thrive in velocity.

Action is better because audiences respond to it. Action keeps us interested. Passive sentences are like passive anything: not very interesting. Don’t believe me? Which zoo animal gets more attention: the monkey swinging on the bars, or the lizard soaking up the sun?

What kinds of movies have the biggest audiences? Which had a biggest box office last year:Barney’s Version or Fast Five? What was the difference: the intricacy of the screenplay? The sensitivity of the acting? The artistry of the directing?

Action works. Action puts bums in seats. Action sells.

Activate these
Here are some examples from the real world. I have changed some details just to protect myself from ire:

Rising household debt is of growing concern for many.

Who’s concerned? Economists? Mothers? Debtors? Loan sharks?

The idea of segments of the supply chain being developed elsewhere was also brought up.

Who brought it up?


Tenants are urged to be wary about companies that claim they can negotiate a better deal with landlords so that only a part of their rent will need to be paid.

Who’s urging?

Solution:  Experts urge tenants to beware of companies that claim they can negotiate a better deal with landlords …


Suggested times for starting each content section are shown in Slide 1: Agenda.

Slide 1: Agenda suggests starting times for each content section.

By effectively controlling the supply chain, costs can be notably curtailed.

Controlling the supply chain effectively can curtail costs.

This one is easy to fix just by removing unnecessary words:

  • The Windows-based Superdyn software can be used for setting parameters, and control and monitoring of DDw-789 motors.
  • The Windows-based Superdyn software can set parameters, and control and monitor DDw-789 motors.

From fiction:

  • If she didn’t get out, she was going to be mauled to death by the dog.
  • If she didn’t get out, the dog would maul her to death.
  • Their whereabouts are only known by the religious caste of the Flarconeans.
  • Only the Flarconeans’ religious caste knows their whereabouts.

Watch for it

Watch your writing for passive sentences. One giveaway: count your use of the word “by,” as in “the dog was jumped over by the fox.” When you proofread your work, watch for long phrases and dependent clauses. In general, try to make sure that the subject of every sentence is what’s performing the verb.

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