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How Fast Can You Change Passive Verbs?

Passive voice verbs sneak into everyone's writing–at least in first drafts. When your grammar and spelling checker flags a passive verb, how quickly can you rewrite the sentence?

My Microsoft grammar and spelling checker underlined 10 of the 11 passive verbs below. Its only miss was were completed. 

See how fast you can revise these sentences to eliminate the underlined passive verbs:  

  1. I can be reached at the number below. 
  2. This expense must be approved by a VP. 
  3. Milestones should be defined in the project plans. 
  4. It would be appreciated if this form were completed
  5. It should be noted that the deadline is July 15. 
  6. Low-priority items are summarized in the table below. 
  7. The invoices should be reviewed carefully. 
  8. All visitors must be escorted
  9. Your feedback is appreciated
  10. The event was postponed until August. 

As you worked through the list, you may have wanted to keep some sentences as they were. For example, what's wrong with "All visitors must be escorted"? Nothing. 

Sometimes passive verbs do work as well as or better than active verbs: 

  • When you want to soften or broaden a directive: "All visitors must be escorted" rather than "Escort your visitors." 
  • When you want to avoid blame: "This invoice should have been paid" rather than "You [or someone else] should have paid this invoice." 
  • When you don't know the doer of the action: "The car was stolen" rather than "Someone stole the car." 
  • When the doer of the action doesn't matter: "All the tickets were distributed" rather than "The outreach workers distributed all the tickets." 

Use a passive verb only when you have a reason for it. Otherwise, as Strunk and White advised, "Use the active voice." It's typically clearer, more direct, and more concise. The revisions below reduce word count by 25 percent.  

Here are my active verb versions of the 10 sentences:

  1. You [or customers, users, etc.] can reach me at the number below. 
  2. A VP must approve this expense.
  3. The project plans should define milestones. 
  4. Please complete this form.  
  5. Please note that the deadline is July 15. [OR]
    Note: The deadline is July 15. 
  6. The table below summarizes low-priority items.
  7. Review the invoices carefully.
  8. Escort all visitors. 
  9. We [I] appreciate your feedback. 
  10. We [or someone else] postponed the event until August. [OR]
    The event has moved to August. 

Can you revise passive verbs quickly? If not, what gets in the way?

Here are other helpful blog posts on passive verbs:

Make Microsoft Find Passives

Procedures: No Place for Passive Verbs

A Passive Verb to Change

Syntax Training

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

4 comments on “How Fast Can You Change Passive Verbs?”

  • I was able to revise those passive verbs quite quickly, in large part thanks to the wonderful English education I received in high school. I will be forever indebted to those great teachers!

    I wanted to make one comment about the use of passive verbs to avoid blame. While I think it is gracious and polite to do this when another person has made an error (especially if multiple people are copied on the message), I think it is important to use active verbs when it was your own error. To me, it comes off as immature and unprofessional to avoid responsibility for your own errors by using phrases like, “A mistake was made” or “This task was missed.”

  • Thank you so much! Lynn. I do appreciate your posts. I was able to change the sentences quickly but I always missed the articles. Perhaps, I have to be keen on those part. Have you written a blog regarding when to use the articles the, a an and others such as of, with, for and etc.?

  • Hi Kai,

    I have not written a blog post on the use of articles. The topic is too complex. For example, both of these are correct depending on who is writing:

    –I went to school this afternoon. (Correct for a student or teacher.)
    –I went to the school this afternoon. (Correct for someone who is not a student or teacher.)

    Because of the complexity of the topic, I would not know how to approach it.

    Here’s my advice to people who need help in this area: When you are corrected by an expert, be sure you understand the correction. Then memorize it or add the information to your notes.


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