6 Ways to Identify Passive Voice

cookies

I love cookies, correction, I love cookie dough, but I do not love my passive voice.  I am currently reading the book The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier: How to Solve the Mysteries of Weak Writing by Bonnie Trenga, a copy editor, to learn how to change my passive writing into words that jump off the page.

What is a passive voice?
A passive voice is a sentence in which the recipient of the verb’s action is the subject instead of the object. Let me clarify with the following sentence:

The cat spilled the bowl of milk.
Verb:  the action happening in the sentence (spilled)
Subject:  the person or thing performing the action (cat)
Object:  the person or thing receiving the action (bowl)

If we gave each part of the sentence a symbol:
Verb: = (spilled)
Subject: x (cat)
Object:  y (bowl)
We would create this equation x=y, or cat spilled bowl.

I know the equation doesn’t make sense mathematically, but I like how is shows the = separating the x and the y, or in other words, how the verb separates the subject and the object.

In a passive sentence this equation is flipped:  y=x (object verb subject)

Example:  The bowl of milk was spilt by the cat.  (bowl spilt cat)

By making this sentence passive we shift the focus from the cat to the bowl.  Please note that not all passive writing needs to be corrected, but it should be used sparingly.

6 Ways to Identify Passive Voice

I.  Weak Verbs
Weak verbs are a common indicator of passive voice, especially the verb forms of “to be” (see chart below).

Example:

  • Passive Sentence:  The bowl of milk was spilt by the cat.
  • What is the “to be” word used? (was)
  • Let’s get rid of the offending word and rearrange the sentence.
  • Active Sentence:  The cat spilled the bowl of milk.

Weak Verbs

Weak Verbs to be.jpg

II.  Past Participles
Past participles are a past tense form of a verb that usually end in -ed, -d, -t, -en, and -n.  They can be used as either verbs or adjectives.  Here is a nice resource of irregular past participles.

Example:

  • Passive Sentence:  The cat was washed by the boy.
  • What is the past participle word used? (washed)
  • We can keep the past participle, but by getting rid of the “to be” verb and rearranging the sentence we can create an active sentence.
  • Active Sentence:  The boy washed the cat.

III.  The Word “by” In a Sentence with a Past Participle
If the word “by” is in a sentence with past participle, you might have a passive sentence.

Example:

  • Passive Sentence:  The boy was scratched by the cat.
  • Do you see the word “by“?
  • Let’s get rid of the offending words and rearrange the sentence.
  • Active Sentence:  The cat scratched the boy.

IV. The Word “that”
When the word “that” is used with a form of “to be” you might have a passive sentence.

Example:

  • Passive Sentence:  The cat that scratched the boy was hissing.
  • We see the word “that,” so what is the “to be” word used? (was)
  • Let’s get rid of the offending words and rearrange the sentence.
  • Active Sentence:  The cat hissed as he scratched the boy.

V.  Nominalizations
A nominalization is a verb that has been turned into a noun, generally ending in -tion or -ing.  A nominalization can occur at the beginning of a sentence or can be hidden within a sentence.

Example 1:  Nominalization That Starts a Sentence

  • Passive Sentence:  Loathing was evident on the cats face after the bath.
  • What is the nominalization (or verb turned into a noun)? (loathing)
    • loathing is now a thing we can see on the cat’s face
  • Let’s get rid of the offending word and rearrange the sentence.
  • Active Sentence:  The cat loathed the boy for giving him a bath.

Example 2:  Nominalization Hidden Within a Sentence

  • Passive Sentence:  A loathing of the boy was evident after the bath.
  • What is the nominalization? (loathing)
    • The phrase structure “a loathing of” or “the loathing of” often idicates the use of a nominalization in the middle of the sentence.
  • Let’s get rid of the phrase a loathing of and rearrange the sentence.
  • Active Sentence:  The cat loathed the boy for giving him a bath.
    • Do you see how we gave this sentence a subject.  The passive sentence didn’t let us know it was the cat who loathed the boy, the active sentence brings the cat into the scene.

VI.  Vague -ing Words
A vague -ing word is often associated with a sentence that is difficult for a reader to follow.  It can often be changed as the sentence is rearranged, creating an active sentence.  Vague -ing words often occur after one of the following words:

Vague -ing Words

Example:

  • Passive Sentence:  The cat walked away while shaking off the water.
  • What is the trigger word and the vague -ing word? (while shaking)
  • Let’s get rid of the offending phrase and rearrange the sentence.
  • Active Sentence:  The cat shook off the water as he walked away.

More Writing Resources

Advertisements