Writing 101: Reducing Usage of Passive Verbs

Guest writer Cassaundra Cohrs recommends reducing your usage of passive sentence structures.

Guest Writer explains views on the verb 'to be'

By Cassaundra Cohrs (Guest Writer)

Do you want to improve your writing, excite your readers, and get your point across clearly? Consider reducing your usage of passive verbs. Most often passive verbs include a form of “to be”, as listed in the conjugation table below.

To Be

The forms of the verb 'to be'
The Forms of the Verb TO BE

The problem with “to be”

Using the verb “to be” and using the passive voice is correct grammatically, but passive sentence structures present style and flow issues. Using them too often can create readability problems and can make your writing less interesting.

While “to be” is not always passive, it behaves that way often. “To be” verbs present a problem because they do not provide any imagery. What do you think of when you read the verb “is”? Hard, huh. Now, what do you think of when you read the words “walk” “swim” or “sing”? Unlike “is”, these verbs are active. You can picture someone doing them.  When you hear the verb “walk”, you might imagine two friends on a stroll through a field on a spring day or a group of children making their way to school or someone taking a boisterous retriever out for exercise. The word “walk” provides images from life experiences associated with that word.

 What do you see when you read the verb “is”? If you are like me, you are drawing a blank. Imagine if every sentence in a book used “to be” verbs rather than action-oriented verbs. Sure, you could be reading the same story, but it might be harder to imagine what is happening. While using “to be” verbs is fine in moderation, using them too often can leave your writing feeling lifeless.

Times to Consider Using “To Be”

For Progressive Action

When a form of “to be” attaches itself to a verb ending in –ing, “to be” is a helping verb indicating progressive action. Sentences such as “I am going to the store” and “I am playing the piano” are active because an action is occurring in the sentence.

Form of “to be” + -ing= active sentence structure

When Absolutely Necessary

“To be”, as a verb, can sometimes be necessary. It can indicate an existential state of being. It can also work as a predicate modifying a subject as in “The floor is wet.” It also can indicate equality, such as in “This girl is Maria”. Sometimes you need to use “to be”.  A standard introductory sentence such as “My name is George,” sounds a bit awkward in the active form of “ I call myself George.” Even so, writers should try not to litter their writings with excessive “to be” verbs.

The Problem with Passive Sentence Construction

Passive structure can present problems because it hides the subject of the sentence. This can make your writing clunky and hard to understand. If you talk this way in real life, it could appear as though you are avoiding saying something.

Consider this scenario: a man returns home with a cake. He leaves it on the table while he gathers everyone else in the house.  Everyone returns to find the man’s six-year-old and his dog standing over the remains of the cake on the floor. If the child says, “The cake was eaten”. Everyone could easily assume the child has eaten the cake. Alternatively, if the child says, “The dog jumped up and pulled the cake off of the table and ate it”, everyone gets a clearer idea of what happened.

Red Flags of Passive Sentence Construction

Subject and Object Switch Places

In passive sentence construction, the writer flips the subject and the object so that the object of a sentence becomes the subject.

Subject –> Object

Subject <– Object

Consider a common active sentence, such as:

“We ate a meal in a restaurant.”

That same information becomes much wordier in its passive form:

“A meal in a restaurant was eaten by us.”

Often Contains Prepositions

If you notice, the previous example also contains the preposition “by”.  Though not always the case, passive sentences often contain prepositions. In passive sentence construction, writers often remove the subject. To put the subject back into the sentence, they add a prepositional phrase. Though this returns the subject to the sentence, it moves the subject away from being the focus of the sentence.

Often Uses a Form of “To Be” + Past Participle Verb

Past participle verbs are verbs in the past tense. They become passive when “to be” verbs attach themselves to them. In this, they hide the doer of whatever action is occurring.

For example, sentences using this structure might include:

 “The gelato was eaten by Nancy.”

“The hotel bill was paid.”

 “The girl’s hair was dyed brown.”

These sentences in the active tense become:

“Nancy ate the gelato.”

“Someone paid for the hotel bill.”

 “The girl dyed her hair brown.”

Can be existential

Existential sentences such as “I am the boss” and “Lily is my friend” do not actually include any action. When identifying passive sentences, remember that, if no action is happening, it is probably passive.

Times to Consider Using Passive Construction

When You Do Not Want to Disclose the Identity of the Subject

Remember that example of the cake. In that example, if the child had eaten the cake and did not want to admit to it, using passive sentence construction would make sense. The rest of the household could still wonder if the dog had eaten it.

When You Do Not Know the Identity of the Subject

Often newspapers will use passive construction for crime stories or for other cases when no one knows the identity of the doer of the action. In such cases, writers could use the passive tense to avoid filling their articles with “the assailant” or “the perpetrator”.  In these cases, it can improve clarity to remove the subject.

When the Subject of the Sentence is Unimportant

In some cases, the identity of the doer does not matter. In those cases, the object could have greater importance and should be the focus.  

When You Want to Project Objectivity in Scientific and Technical Writing

Oftentimes, those evaluating scientific reports want the focus to be on the process and not on the individual performing that process. In such cases, writers may need to use passive construction to remove themselves from focus. Though to improve readability, they might consider using active construction where they can.

How to Reduce Usage of Passive Sentence Construction and “To Be” Verbs

 If all this makes you feel just a little bit overwhelmed, no need to worry. With just a few tweaks, you can transform your writing from bland to brilliant.

Flip the structure back

Consider this sentence: “It is the road that was travelled on by the bandits.“

In this sentence, the doer of the action is hiding. Who travelled on the road? The bandits did, right? So, if you move the subject of the sentence back to the front where it belongs, the sentence becomes active again.

Consider this active version of the sentence: “The bandits travelled on that road.”

Both sentences mean the same thing; however, one uses active language and the other passive. The active version also removes the unnecessary instances of “to be”.

Change the Verb

Many times other verbs can provide better imagery for the reader than “to be” does. Whenever you notice a version of “to be” in your writing, you might want to take a moment to consider its necessity and whether you could replace it with an active verb.

For example:

You could rewrite a sentence such as “My cat is from the animal shelter” using the active verb “adopt”. With that change, you could write, “We adopted my cat from the animal shelter”. This would present a much clearer image in the reader’s mind than the word “is” does.

Combine Sentences

Looking out for unnecessary sentences and seeing where you can condense your information can add clarity to your writing. Sometimes combining sentences can improve flow and remove unnecessary passive verbs all in one go. Consider this string of sentences on the same cat theme:

“My cat’s name is Zooey. She is nine. She is a calico. She is from the animal shelter.”

Instead, you might write:

“We adopted my nine-year-old calico cat Zooey from the animal shelter.”

This flows much better and removes several unnecessary words.

Final Thoughts

So, by now, you should all have the tools necessary to identify passive verbs and activate your writing. By adopting a more action-oriented vocabulary, you can better engage your readers and help them to immerse themselves in the content of your writing.  Just remember to note where the subject performing the action is in a sentence and consider whether the subject should stay there or move to a more prominent position.  Happy writing.

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