First of all, what is passive voice, and what’s so bad about it?
When a sentence is written with passive voice, it contains words like “were” “are” “is” “had” or “will be.” A sentence written in passive voice isn’t bad, but it doesn’t live up to its potential. By including these words, the writer takes the easy way out. He or she doesn’t have to spend time thinking of interesting or specific verbs, or writing in clear and concise language. It may be a time saver, but it will lead to a more muddled paper. Consider these two sentences:
1. Odysseus was a poor leader, which is shown by his refusal to listen to his men.
2. As a poor leader, Odysseus refused to listen to his men.
Or these two:
1. Women were unable to vote for decades after men were able to do so.
2. While men elected official after official, women dreamed of going to the polls themselves.
In both cases, the second sentence is stronger. In the first case, it is more concise, and in the second, it forced me to write a more interesting phrase.
When I taught elementary school, our coaches instructed us to have funerals for “dead verbs” with our classes. Our students created coffins for “is” and “was” and buried them on school grounds – that’s how strongly they felt about weeding them out of the students’ writing.
You may be looking at your most recent paper and noticing that almost every sentence contains “is” “was” or “were.” But how do you get these nasty, boring verbs out of there? Here are 4 methods to think about:
Choose a different verb.
This is possibly the easiest method for removing dead or passive verbs from your writing. Just look at the sentence and think of a better, more specific verb to use.
The street was filled with fruit stands./The street heaved (burst, sagged, etc.) with fruit stands.
Mercutio was the most interesting character in Romeo and Juliet./ Mercutio stood out as the most interesting character in Romeo and Juliet.
The war was long – it lasted 8 years. The war continued for 8 long years.
2. Get rid of “ing”
If you look through your passive sentences, chances are you’ll see quite a few “was”s and “were”s followed by an “ing” verb. Just remove the “ing” and you will have a more active sentence.
She was walking home from school./She walked home from school.
The settlers were persecuting the Native Americans. /The settlers persecuted the Native Americans.
The prisoners were dying by the dozens every month./ The prisoners died by the dozens every month.
3. Move your adjective (describing word) before your noun.
Have you ever written a sentence like this? She was beautiful, cold, and unaware of his affections.
It is tempting to use a dead verb preceding a list of adjectives, or even just one adjective. Why not write it like this instead:
The beautiful, cold, and oblivious woman ignored the young man’s affections.
Martin Luther King Jr. was a great leader and a peaceful man who died in 1968. /A great leader and proponent of peace, Martin Luther King Jr. died in 1968.
William Shakespeare is one of the greatest writers of all time and was responsible for changing literature forever. /The brilliant William Shakespeare changed the face of literature forever.
4. Change the order of your sentence.
Sometimes, just switching the subject to the beginning of your sentence will get rid of your nasty passive verb.
Jane Eyre was written by Charlotte Bronte./ Charlotte Bronte wrote Jane Eyre.
The Jews were put onto cattle cars by the Nazis. /The Nazis forced the Jews onto cattle cars.
The scarf had been left on the table by Margaret./ Margaret left her scarf on the table.
If you want to write with greater clarity and specificity, pay special attention to weeding out the dead verbs the next time you revise a paper. Use these four methods to eliminate almost all of them.