Few grammar rules rile readers as much as the passive voice. We remain grammatically correct when we employ passive voice; this device helps when we must (or prefer to) avoid stating who did what in a sentence. Yet, excessive passive voice impacts our brevity and tone. We can sound too bureaucratic, cool, and stuffy (at worse) and wordy and formal (at best).
Either way, if you worry how you sound to others at work, try swapping passive voice with active and see if you gain a warmer audience response. This post provides ways to make your voice sound more active vs. passive—and quick tips (and tools) to fixing the passive voice, too.
Detect the passive through a small test
Step one to removing the passive voice from your writing becomes ensuring you can spot the pattern. When we’ve made a sentence passive, the subject becomes acted upon when we want the subject to perform the action. This simple test from Online Writing Lab helped me absorb the rule:
- The ball was hit by Billy vs. Billy hit the ball.
- The ball was hit vs. someone/something hit the ball.
In the first example, “the ball was hit by Billy” uses passive voice because we didn’t state who did what up top. Once we revise to: Billy hit the ball, we’ve made that same statement active (and more strident sounding, too).
In the second example, “the ball was hit” remains passive because the writer hasn’t told us who did what. Once we say: Someone/she/he hit the ball, we’ve received more bearings and made the sentence active.
Apply the “by zombies” test
Another small and easy test comes from Grammarly, the online grammar resource. Try adding the phrase “by zombies” at the end of a sentence. If the phrase confuses the sentence, you’re probably active. If adding “by zombies” clarifies, then you’re passive. Some examples follow:
- The village was attacked (by zombies). (This sentence makes sense with the add-on phrase and became passive without it.)
- Zombies overtook the village (by zombies). (This sentence no longer makes sense; therefore, we’re already active.)
Ask yourself: By who/whom? By what?
Here’s one more self-test: Can you review the statement and ask: By who, or, by what? If so, your sentence remains passive. Some small examples follow:
- Questions were raised. (By who? He/she/the CEO/the priest raised the questions.)
- Curfew rules were enforced. (By who? By what? Local police/the matron/a siren enforced curfew rules.)
- The client account was won. (By who? By which team? The New Zealand/best/most-creative team won the client account.)
Use automated checks for passive voice
You’ll still need to know the rules if you really want to get on top of passive voice constructions, but automated checks (like those I outline below) provide a great start.
Slick Write: This free system works quickly and well. Simply paste your message into the box and Slick Write highlights anything suspicious and explains the concern.
Microsoft Word: Microsoft offers the self-edit check for passive voice and other style issues. Go to File, Options, Proofing, Grammar and Style, then, select passive sentences. Consult this video for instructions for Microsoft Word 2016, which may modify what I’ve offered. This link offers prompts for earlier Microsoft Word editions.
Datayze passive voice detector: This free system asks you to add your text to the box provided, select “re-analyze,” and Datayze highlights the passive voice. You also learn what percentage of your writing contains passive construction.
Now you’ve several self-check options available to you and three different automated checks for detecting passive voice, feel liberated! Enjoy making the subject perform the action in your sentences—and know you sound crisper, more direct, and more compelling, too.
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