Tuesday, February 21, 2012


Eliminate those awful passive sentences!

Thanks to http://transformers.wikia.com/
for the image
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:

: 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.


  1. Great lesson! Thanks for sharing:)

  2. Excellent. Printing it off straight away. Thanks.

  3. This is perfect timing for my revisions. Thank you :-)

  4. Anonymous4:14 PM

    Very kind of you to share!!! Thank you :-D

  5. You are so, so right, my friend! I hope many people see this, because so much of what I read is overburdened with this sort of writing. It's like they're just trying to up the word count rather than concentrating on offering a smooth read.

  6. Anonymous5:33 PM

    Excellent piece, Scott. If authors follow this advice and always check through their work for unnecessary words, they'll be astonished at how much better they have become as writers!

  7. Thanks for the refresher!

  8. Good information! Thanks. I'm going to word search my novel for the word "by."

  9. I was reading this article and started thinking about how many times I had previously been writing using the passive voice, and no matter how hard I tried I didn't end up finding anything that could have even been remotely considered passive in any of my sentence structures regarding the the fine article by you which at one point had been posted amongst the other fine posting on your blog.

    (Jeez, will this even make it through the spam filter?)

    1. Well, the spam filter didn't catch it, but I did. Thanks for the praise. I didn't notice much passive voice in your novel sample on your website, so you're doing something right.

  10. I am not a writer so thanks for the clarification! I just read and sometimes do not know how to put into words what bothered me. This information helped clarify a alot for me. Thank you.

  11. Thanks Scott, great lesson.
    I've rewritten 'Genome' and now my series 'Arlo and Jake' multiple times trying to fix this very issue.
    When I'm doing the stream of conciousness writing it's much too verbose. Going back and pushing for the active voice makes the story flow much better and more exciting.
    Keep it up and thanks again!

  12. Anonymous8:59 PM

    Your advice will be taken by me from now on. NO, NO, NO. I am taking your advice from now on! Have I got the right idea?

  13. Great post, thanks. I'm a great believer in losing all the unnecessary words, tightening up sentences is essential to maintain action. Sadly a lot of UK writers (still) just go on too much, if you don't get to the point quickly nowadays people lose interest. It's just how we've become, maybe it's been caused by the Internet, who knows? Regards Pete