Jan 14, 2014

Grammar Hammer: Passive Aggressive Voice (Not Behavior!)

This week we’re looking at the difference between the active and passive voices, and how to use (or avoid) their use.

Active voice: the subject of the sentence performs the action described in the verb.

Example: “I shoveled the driveway.”

The subject does the action to the object. I shoveled the driveway. The benefit to using active voice?  It makes your writing more concise and keeps the meaning of the sentence clear.

Passive voice: the subject is acted upon.

Example: “The driveway was shoveled.”

I intentionally left off the “by me” part of this to illustrate one way of determining passive voice.  If you can add “by so-and-so” to the end, the sentence is written in passive voice.

Passive voice is often used in scientific writing. It allows the writer to present information without having to attribute it to a particular agent. For non-scientific writing, passive voice is useful when the agent doing the action is obvious or unimportant, or if the writer wants to avoid mentioning the agent until the end of the sentence, if at all.

Identifying passive voice: if the object of the sentence is in the subject position = passive.

Three quick tips for avoiding passive voice mistakes:

  1. Don’t start a sentence in active voice and change it to passive voice (or vice versa).
  2. Avoid dangling modifiers.
  3. Trust your judgment. Your computer-programmed grammar checker may not have all the answers, you know.

And because English is confusing, remember that passive voice will always include some form of “to be” – am, is, was, were, are, been – but the presence of that verb doesn’t always mean passive voice.

If you really want to reduce your use of the passive voice, try the Paramedic Method.

Write your sentence and pick it apart!

  1. Circle the prepositions (of, in, about, for, onto, into)
  2. Draw a box around the “is” verb forms
  3. Ask, “Where’s the action?”
  4. Change the “action” into a simple verb
  5. Move the doer into the subject (Who’s kicking whom)
  6. Eliminate any unnecessary slow wind-ups
  7. Eliminate any redundancies.

Have a grammar rule you’d like me to explore? Drop me a line at catherine.spicer@prnewswire.com.

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Author Catherine Spicer is a manager of customer content services at PR Newswire.

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