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:
- I can be reached at the number below.
- This expense must be approved by a VP.
- Milestones should be defined in the project plans.
- It would be appreciated if this form were completed.
- It should be noted that the deadline is July 15.
- Low-priority items are summarized in the table below.
- The invoices should be reviewed carefully.
- All visitors must be escorted.
- Your feedback is appreciated.
- 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:
- You [or customers, users, etc.] can reach me at the number below.
- A VP must approve this expense.
- The project plans should define milestones.
- Please complete this form.
- Please note that the deadline is July 15. [OR]
Note: The deadline is July 15.
- The table below summarizes low-priority items.
- Review the invoices carefully.
- Escort all visitors.
- We [I] appreciate your feedback.
- 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:
Procedures: No Place for Passive Verbs