Gram’s Grimlins: Passive verbs


Take a look at your writing and see if this gremlin has overtaken your work:  passive verbs.

The passive verbs come from “to be”:  is, was, etc.

A simple way to make an improvement in your writing, especially in less casual work, is to cut out  minimize the passive and give life to your verbs.

How does one do this?  It’s actually quite simple, and yet some will find it difficult at first.

1.  Write.

2.  Go back and read your writing and circle (or highlight) all the passive verbs.

3.  Go back again and change the majority of them to active verbs.

 

This may take a bit of rewriting, but your writing will leap off the page instead of passively lying there once you have mastered this technique.  Don’t remove all passive verbs, but make sure you don’t use them where an active/action verb would do better.  Also remember that some writing requires more of a passive voice, so make sure you can do both.

 

A few examples:

Jan wants to be a writer.  ♦  Jan dreams of a career as a writer.

After the geographical information has been reviewed…♦ After reviewing the geogrphical information…

The climate is a seasonal change. ♦ The climate changes seasonally.

The world, writing and otherwise, would be in utter chaos if we allowed our inner children (aka left brain) to follow their every inclination without the presence and guidance of their adult self.  ♦  Utter chaos would rein if we allowed…..

 

Your turn:  How would you eliminate the is in this sentence?  Do you think it needs to be removed?  Why?  Why not? 

Maintaining the wonder of childhood is a good thing, but that doesn’t mean we must remain children in every aspect of our lives.

 

Do you favor a passive voice in your writing?  Can you see how an active voice would bring the writing/characters to life?  Would you like to submit some examples or some samples for us to work on?   Has the passive verb gremlin been attacking your writing?

 

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17 Comments

  1. authormjlogan

    I am not trying to be the grammar police and I don’t have a degree in English, but let’s have a look at some of this.

    “Maintaining the wonder of childhood is a good thing, but that doesn’t mean we must remain children in every aspect of our lives.”

    Is this really passive voice? While every passive voice sentence contains a form of the verb “to be”, not every sentence that contains a form of “to be” is passive voice. In this sentence, the implied subject is “I, we, you”, the verb is maintain and the object is wonder. I-maintain-wonder. Subject-action-verb. The “is a good thing” portion is just a clause tacked onto the end.

    Cheaply written grammar checkers often lack the intelligence to fathom the difference and incorrectly flag every instance of “to be” as passive. We have to look at a sentence and determine if the subject of the sentence takes an action on the object of the sentence. In an active voice construction, the subject takes action, often on an object, but sometimes on a concept.

    “John hit Mark.” – This is clearly active voice. John(subject) hit(verb) Mark(object). John took action and Mark received that action. The layout is clear – subject took action on object.

    “Mark was hit by John” We have the same subject, verb and object, but the order is reversed. The object is first, the subject last. This is passive voice and the verb is a form of to be – was hit.

    “Jan wants to be a writer. ♦ Jan dreams of a career as a writer.”

    Allow me to dissect a little because both of these sentences follow active voice construction.

    “Jan” is the subject of both sentences. She takes action (the verb) by “wanting” or “dreaming” something. What Jan wants is the object of the sentence – “to be a writer” or a “career as a writer.” In both sentences, the subject “Jan” takes action by wanting/dreaming something. Both sentences are active voice.

    We can simplify by only writing the subject, verb and object in the order they appear.
    (S) “Jan” (V) “wants/dreams” (O)”writer/career”. Both sentences are active voice.

    The use of an implied subject sometimes creates confusion. If I say to you, “Go to the corner,” what are the subject, verb and object? In this case, I implied the subject of the sentence (You) and specified the action “go” on the object “store.”

    Now for good part. Gram is keeping Imma in line by keeping the sentence construction active. Imma is being just as stubborn by not allowing Gram’s insistence on active voice to muck up the pretty prose and we end up with – “Jan dreams of a career as a writer.”

    The use of passive voice is not always wrong and there are times when its use is almost mandatory. Grammar Girl gives some good examples of when to use and not to use passive voice. http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/active-voice-versus-passive-voice.aspx

  2. authormjlogan

    in my above comment, third paragraph, I should have wrote “Subject-action-object” and not “Subject-action-verb”

    • Wow. Thanks a lot. I know those weren’t good examples. They were what I came up with at the time. I love how you use Gram and Imma in your explanation as well. I am certainly not a grammar pro. I usually know when I see something that isn’t right. I can usually fix it. But it’s different when viewing one’s own writing. I like that having a to be verb does not make a sentence passive. That is very true. Give me an education any time 🙂 Angie

    • I just realized you corrected yourself. Inner Gram?

  3. authormjlogan

    It is interesting to find myself doing that. Usually when I take left-right brain tests, I end up being about 70 percent right brain and 30 percent left brain. Yet, I strive for perfection and there is an uncorrected error in my comment that is driving me crazy. The practical side of me says, let it go and move on. My own inner “Gram” keeps nagging me to fix it.

    In this case, I am telling my “Gram” to shut up and get a life. Tomorrow I must create and be perfect at the same time, so “Gram” will be welcome once again.

    You have also started me contemplating whether or not my ‘perfectionist’ nature comes from my left or right sides. I am no longer sure it is a component of my left-brain thinking. I like my creations ‘perfect,’ whether logical in nature or not.

    One thing I know, this blog has me thinking about some things in ways I’ve never thought about them before. And that is a good thing. 🙂
    MJ

    • Ah, welcome to my world! It’s a crazy place sometimes, but I think it helps to understand how the two sides fit together and how they make us do what we do. You are the subject of my next post 🙂

  4. elizabeth

    Angela, I struggle with grammar to the nth degree. I hate it. I don’t understand any of it. With me writing comes down to, does that sound right? And even then it may sound right to me and be causing the Perfectionists to pull out their hair.

    I tried to rewrite that is sentence, but I couldn’t. So I’m glad that Authormjlogan up there explained why I was having such a tough time doing that 🙂 I do try to understand, but all those rules of grammar and punctuation are like a million-piece-jigsaw someone threw up into the air and I can’t even find the four corner pieces to get started.

    Thanks for trying to help because even though I couldn’t rearrange that sentence Authormj’s analysis of the problem helps give me some insight and hope. Thanks MJ 🙂

    • I hear you! I am good at grammar, but it’s something that’s ingrained from years of writing papers…. I don’t get all of it, and I often can’t tell you what it’s called (the analytical part). I’m hoping I can help people who also struggle with it. As you can see by Mike’s comment, I didn’t get it completely right either. At least, I didn’t express it as well as I could have (see next post :). Imma likes your approach best 🙂 Even some of the best authors/writers need editors or they just leave it as is. I edit for a friend – her content is good (only with too many passive verbs) – but if I didn’t clean it up for her – YIKES! Works for us. Thanks for coming by.

      • elizabeth

        Angela, you gave me some insight too. But that sentence had me stumped 🙂 And you’re right, even editors need help sometimes.

    • authormjlogan

      Elizabeth, Don’t struggle. Put a subject, a verb and a object in (nearly) every sentence and you will be fine. More important to let the words flow and get on with it than to struggle and obsess (like I sometimes do) over a sentence or paragraph. Let it sit for a while and go back and edit.

      If it sounds right, it is probably mostly right anyway. The more you write, the more certain things come naturally.

      As Yoda would say, ‘Worry about grammar I will not.’

      • elizabeth

        Thanks MJ, I appreciate the encouragement 🙂

      • Good advice MJLogan! Grammar can come later or you can get someone to do that for you. The content has to flow first. Grammar without content is not good writing.

  5. This is a great reminder for me. Sometimes I can be overly wordy in my articles so I will try to go back and proofread to give an active voice instead. Good reminder.

    • I think all writers have problems with that ‘overly wordy’ thing:) Some are verbally wordy, and we are wordy wordy???? 🙂

  6. I discovered (by mistake) that a good way to practice eradicating passive voice is to “rewrite” passages of muscular prose–tightly constructed prose that jump with active verbs. My discovery occurred when I set out to parody the opening passages of Tom French’s (wonderful) NYT bestseller, “Zoo Story,” and I was very strict about matching my version’s parts of speech with the original’s. (Ie: “Eleven elephants. One airplane. Hurtling together across the sky.” became “Seven students. One Tom. Hurtling together across a firmament of possibility.” It would be a good writing exercise in the classroom. (If interested, the original can be found here:http://www.goucher.edu/x40702.xml)
    Thanks for an interesting discussion!

    • Thank you Betsy. That would be an interesting exercise for any one wanting to improve this aspect of his or her writing. Imitation, or looking to those who do it well hones our writing by showing us how it’s done. Thanks for coming by, and I’m glad you enjoyed the discussion. Angie

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