At last, a blog post for everyone who discovered active verbs in one of my workshops and wants more on how to identify passive verbs and edit them out.
Why avoid passive verbs?
Plain English favours the active voice over the passive, for good reasons.The active voice says the most in the fewest words. And it forces you to say who or what is doing the action, so you can’t accidentally leave out important information. Here’s an example:
- Active: The Sales Director approved these changes on 3 May.
- Passive. These changes were approved on 3 May.
The difference in length is small in these short, clear examples. But for writers who habitually use the passive voice, as many lawyers do, the cumulative effect can be strong. That’s why, for those writers, the active voice is in my top 3 suggested writing habits.
But we use passive verbs to sound polite
The choice between passive and active verbs also affects the tone of your writing. More passive verbs make writing more wordy, elaborate, formal, polite and old-fashioned. More active verbs make it more direct, modern, efficient or even curt. A tiny example:
- Active: Send your reply by close of business on 5 August.
- Passive: Your reply should be sent by close of business on 5 August.
There are other ways to soften a curt or abrupt message, apart from the passive voice. For example:
- Change the verb: Your reply should arrive by close of business on 5 August.
- Say “please”: Please send your reply by close of business on 5 August.
- Give a reason: If you reply by 5 August, I can include your answers in my report the next day.
The risk, if you have too many passive verbs, is that the tone may become non-committal, tentative, defensive or evasive. For example:
- Active: I think the judge will probably reject this argument.
- Passive (and tentative): It is thought that this argument would probably not be accepted.
Can you have too many active verbs?
In theory, no. Anything you can say in the passive voice, you could say in the active. And, with a bit of thought, you can still achieve the tone you want.
For example, look at the appellate brief written by Assistant Attorney General, Christopher G Wren, published in Clarity (2002) 48 on pages 13 to 17. It doesn’t use any passive verbs. Nor does this blog post: the only passive verbs in it it are those I’ve given as examples.
But when you need to leave out who or what is doing the action, the passive voice is useful. Even though you could cut it out altogether, in my experience it’s not worth the effort. If 80% of your verbs are in the active voice, you are already using more active verbs than most lawyers. If 90% are in the active voice, time spent editing out the last ones will probably bring diminishing returns.
How do I recognise the passive voice?
Those who like to know the full explanation will find it here: the grammar behind active and passive verbs. But there are two short cuts to identify passive verbs without knowing the grammar.
One is to get your computer to highlight what may be a passive verb. The computer does this by checking for word patterns such as “is xxxed” or “was xxxx xxxed”. Programs that can highlight passive verbs as you type include:
- Word and Outlook (after you adjust settings deep in the proofing options). These detect some passive verbs but miss many. Word and Outlook 2016 may sometimes suggest an alternative. Readability statistics show how many passive verbs the program has found in the document, but only after you go through a spelling and grammar check on the whole document. Re-checking an edited document is not straightforward.
- StyleWriter (a Word add-in available on free trial from Editor Software). You can adjust the display to focus on passive verbs. It detects nearly all passive verbs plus a few other similar expressions, and it’s not hard to find statistics for how many you’ve used. It doesn’t work in Outlook or on a Mac.
- (Note: WordRake, an add-in for Word and Outlook, detects wordy phrases but not passive verbs.)
The other short cut is to do as Christopher G Wren did, and edit out the following words wherever you find them, as much as you can: is, am, are, was, were, be, being, been. These are all parts of the verb “to be” and you cannot form a passive verb without them. They also appear in many wordy and abstract phrases, so cutting them will make your writing more direct, concrete and concise. It is possible to cut them all, as Mr Wren did. But, as with passive verbs, you can get most of the benefit without going that far. If you make it a habit to cut one or two from every email you send, you will soon develop a more direct, concise style.
How to edit out the passive voice
Once you find a passive verb (or the verb “to be”, if you’re using that shortcut), edit the suspect text to put the point another way. If possible, put it in fewer words. If necessary, add who or what is doing the action. If it’s difficult, skip on. Keep editing out the easy ones and you’ll soon improve. There are many ways to rewrite passive verbs, but three of the most useful are:
- Ask yourself who or what is doing the action, and begin the point with that.
- (If possible) Change the verb, as in the example of a polite request above.
- Cut as many words as you can.
Try this for practice. I’ve underlined four passive verbs in the text below. Use these three techniques to edit them out. Then compare your results with the picture at the top of this blog post.
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