Passive (Voice) Aggression


You may or may not have had an English teacher who circled all the instances of passive voice with angry, red ink. PV! PV! PV!

I did, and I she scarred me for life. I still remember spending hours combing 1-page essays for anything she could mark with her sadistic “PV!” I also remember not really knowing exactly what passive voice was, nor did I know how to remedy it. Oh, the anxiety attacks.

Thankfully, in another room down the hall, a more benevolent creative writing professor taught me to use active verbs to enliven my writing.

Not until I was teaching college writing class did those lessons finally sink in, and I learned how to use that information. Of course, my new challenge was teaching it to a room of freshmen who were just as clueless as I had been.

So what are passive voice and active verbs? And why should you care?

Short answer: It sounds better.

Let’s review. Passive voice means using sentence structure that puts the emphasis on the object of a sentence. A standard example is “something was somethinged”  or “object was verbed.” Here’s a way to recast your writing to use an active verb instead:

The book was read aloud.

In this example, the book is the dominant feature of the sentence and draws the most attention. The construction was read is passive voice use of the verb to read.  The reader of the book remains unidentified, and the the object of the sentence–the book–occupies the prominent position in the sentence.  The subject–or reader–is missing entirely from the sentence.

This sentence brings up some questions. First,  who is reading the book? Secondly: Why does it matter that is was read aloud? Why is the book the focus of this sentence? This is a vague sentence that doesn’t say anything specific nor conjure a clear mental image.

You could answer the first question this way:

The book was read aloud by the teacher.

That adds a little more information, but it still doesn’t explain why the book has to be the most important thing.

Unless you are trying to add some special significance to the book, it’s best to rework the sentence using an active verb. Observe.

The teacher read the book aloud.

Here the verb to read is an action clearly being done by the teacher. The image here is clear: a teacher, perhaps perched on a stool, reads a book aloud to her class. (Assumed, but not unreasonable.) The teacher is the focus of the sentence, and the fact that she is reading aloud is not a stretch of the imagination. Also, there is no question about what makes this particular book special. It’s just a book.

And, we have avoided wordiness;  the sentence is clear, concise, and easy to visualize. As E.B. White puts it The Elements of Style, active voice “makes for more forceful writing,” and “a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice.” (Page 18-19 in the fourth edition of TEOS)

Furthermore, an active verb can remedy an awkward sentence. Here are a few examples of specific style hang-ups that can be fixed with an active verb. 

One of too many:

The word of should be used sparingly. Only the romance languages can get away with that.

The wife of my neighbor was at the party.

Even thought the was in this sentence is technically an active verb, it feels weak because the subject (the doer of the verb) is “the wife of my neighbor.” There is too much going on in that bit of sentence to convey a clear idea.  Instead, pick a specific and descriptive verb and place it as close to the subject (or doer) as possible.

My neighbor’s wife came to the party.

The possessive ‘s helps shorten the subject, and I choose a simple, yet effective, verb to indicated the woman’s attendance.

Multiple essessess in possessives

Ok, so you probably know that if a word ends with s and you want to write it as a possessive, you skip the extra s and just add an apostrophe. Like so:

Wes’ bike is blue.

This looks a lot nicer on the page than Wes’s, even though that is how it is pronounced when spoken. However, some words, usually names or brands, already end with a possessive apostrophe and the letter s. For example, my favorite high-school late-night hangout, Denny’s, includes a possessive apostrophe in the name.

Yes, capital D-e-n-n-y-apostrophe-s is the proper way to spell it. Though this is grammatically correct, the following sentence is undeniably awkward.

Denny’s’ coffee tastes like watered down dirt.

Since we are not talking about a person named Denny, rather the trademark name of a restaurant, we ought to recast the sentence to avoid the ugly apostrophe. To do this, I used a strong, active verb. Observe:

Denny’s serves coffee that tastes like watered down dirt.

Here the verb serves removes any doubt that the sentence is about the restaurant and not a kid named Denny, for a verb cannot go after a possessive. (You cannot possess verbs, only nouns. )

*See Grammar Girls excellent explanation on page 3 of The Grammar Devotional.

Avoiding there are/is and could be

Strunk and White aptly point out in Chapter 2 of their trusted tome, The Elements of Style, that active voice is a great way to eliminate verbose expressions such as there are, it could be that, and other variations.

Consider the following:

There were a lot of people at the concert.

It’s not a bad sentence, just a weak one. To remedy that, I choose a stronger, more specific verb than to be (were) and recast the sentence this way:

Many people attended the concert.

The verb attended is far more specific. Also, I eliminated that wordy expression a lot of; however, it’s still a pretty weak sentence. If I want to truly communicate how crowded the concert was, I would be more specific.

Five-hundred people attended the concert.

Now you can visualize the sentence, and the message is clear that it was a well-attended event.

Here’s another example:

The ocean could be seen from their front porch.

The could be is bland and implies some sort of vague notion that the ocean is visible but only with some effort. Let’s try this:

The front porch boasted an ocean view.


I glimpsed the ocean from the porch.

In this example, the I gives the sentence a personal touch and eliminates dispute.

*More examples can be found on p. 19 of the above-mentioned book. At least in my copy, it’s on p. 19. I have the fourth edition.
Passive voice is not all bad. When appropriate, it can help soften a blow or provide distance between a writer and her topic. Scientists often use passive voice to avoid implicating themselves in the results of their studies. For example: The ants were incapacitated by the ether.
However, I tend to think of PV! as a crutch that even I use when I want to write my way into something. It denotes lack of confidence in your writing and knowledge of  the subject. Instead of showing weakness, use active, specific verbs when possible to add punch and spunk to your everyday writing. 
 Try it in your next email. I promise you will be amazed at how confident and smart you sound. Go ahead, don’t be passive, be aggressive!

About Taylor

Teacher/Writer/Word Nerd View all posts by Taylor

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