Active vs. Passive Verbs
Starting this week, instead of PUGS Pointers, I’m going to post some self-editing tips. Here’s the first one, on Active vs. Passive Verbs.
Wherever possible, strive to use strong, precise verbs rather than weak, vague verbs. Instead of saying, “They were going,” write, “They went.” Or better yet, show how they went. “They jogged,” “They raced,” “They ambled,” for example. The more description you can fit into a single action verb, the better.
Here are some examples:
Passive: It is believed by Sue that a curfew must be placed on her son, Matthew.
Active: Sue believes that she must place a curfew on her son, Matthew.
Passive: It was earlier demonstrated that Matthew could be intimidated by too much freedom.
Active: Friday’s party showed Sue that too much freedom could intimidate Matthew.
Passive verbs often indicate that a subject exists, or that something happens to the subject. Active verbs describe something a subject does.
Passive: Andrew had dark, curly hair and a bushy beard.
Active: Andrew ran his fingers through his dark, curly hair and stroked his bushy beard.
Passive: Two cups of coffee were on the table.
Active: Joe picked up two cups of coffee from the table.
NOTE: Verb phrases that include is, was, are, were, be, been, would, could, has, had, have, etc. are usually passive.
In nonfiction, there are a few acceptable reasons to use passive verbs:
1. To emphasize the action rather than the subject.
Example: Jim’s bioengineering proposal was approved by the committee.
2. To keep the subject and focus consistent throughout a passage.
Example: The astrobiology department presented a controversial proposal to the committee. After long debate, the proposal was endorsed by …
3. To be tactful by not naming the subject.
Example: The e-mail message was misinterpreted.
4. To describe a condition in which the subject is unknown or irrelevant to the sentence.
Example: Every year, many people are diagnosed with Environmental Illness.
5. To create an authoritative tone.
Example: Visitors are not allowed after 9:00 p.m.
In all other instances, and in all fiction writing, use active verbs in place of passive ones wherever feasible.