passive writing

Passive Wording

Out of the slimy mud of words, out of the sleet

and hail of verbal imprecisions,

Approximate thoughts and feelings, words

that have taken the place of thoughts and feelings,

There spring the perfect order of speech,

and the beauty of incantation.

~T. S. Eliot

Don't Put Readers to Sleep

Passive wording

“Passive voice” dulls your writing and makes readers yawn: it takes the verve and life out of your words and often puts your readers to sleep.

Active wording

“Active voice” is almost always more effective, using concrete verbs and avoiding the bad habit of turning nouns into verbs (which makes your writing ponderous and heavy, and contributes to unnecessary wordiness).

Compare “it was said after the payroll was stolen” with “Jimmy shouted 'yes!' after he stole the payroll.”

The first option uses “passive voice” or wording, while the latter uses “active voice.”

    • Make a conscious choice about using the active or the passive.Don’t use passive voice just out of habit or laziness. It is all too easy for any writer to fall into such writing patterns, but a good writer goes back and edits her wordings.

    • In some instances, though, as when you need to express certain philosophical concepts or when the result is more important than the doer, passive verbs can be useful.


Look for sentences that start with

    • “there is”

    • “there are”

    • “there were”

    • “it is”

    • “it was”

Such sentence beginnings usually result in "passive sentences."

Scrap these dull beginnings and reword in “active voice.”

Put the performer of the act at stage center, not off in the wings, and you will draw your readers in.

I Have a Dream...Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream..." speech would not have had nearly the same punch if he had said "There is a dream..."

Mistakes Were Made...

Such passive wording illustrates a classic technique, often used by politicians and executives, of using passive voice to avoid taking responsibility for their own errors.

Much more honest and direct is the active wording, “I made a mistake.”

Copyright © 2007 Donna Reeder Back to Writing Style