Monday, July 25, 2011

Get Rid of Those Pesky Passive Sentences

Today I thought I’d share something that has made a remarkable difference in my manuscripts: Active vs. Passive.


Active sentence: The subject of the sentence performs the action of the verb.
example: The ball hit the girl.

Passive sentence: The target of the action is moved to the subject.
example: The girl is hit by the ball.

Both sentences bear the same meaning. But in the passive example the receiver of the action (girl) has been moved to the front, now becoming the subject of the sentence.

Passive sentences aren't improper. When used correctly they can be a great tool in directing the reader's attention. The trick is knowing when and why you are using them.


active: Sarah took the documents.

passive: The documents were taken by Sarah.

Do you want your reader to focus on Sarah who took the documents (active)? Or the documents themselves (passive)? The content of the scene can help determine which form to use.

Above I said passive form isn’t incorrect, but it can lead to wordy sentences. If you've ever heard authors say they need to tighten up their manuscript, passivity could be the malefactor. Instead of making a direct statement, passive sentences tend to delay the point, giving off a long, awkward feel. The added wordiness that typically accompanies passive sentences can be elusive and unfocused. Nothing will wrench a reader from a story more than tripping over a vague sentence.

So how can you locate passive sentences?

1.       Grammar check: MS Word has the option to search for passive sentences, but don't depend on this entirely. The easiest way to find passive sentences is to locate the subject of your sentence to see if it is taking the direct action.

2.       Searching for ‘to be’ verb forms (is, am, are, were, etc.) may help you spot some passive sentences, but not all. Because “I am lighting a fire” isn’t passive, but “The fire is being lit by me.” is.

For FUN, after you search your WIP for passive sentences (because I know you're already itching to do so), come back and post one in the comments below. That way we can all learn from each other’s mistakes.


  1. Great advice. I struggled with this for a while when I first started writing. Once I got the hang of making sentences more active, it made such a difference.

  2. CherylAnne, I agree; it's one of those things you have to train your brain to spot. But once you do, it can really transform your writing.