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Get Your Grammar Fix(ed): Will the Real Passive Voice Please Stand Up?

Never write in the passive voice.

That little gem could be great advice. It could help you light a fire under your writing!

If you know what passive voice really is.

First, please allow me to explain what passive voice is NOT.

Many folks understand it to mean dull writing. You know, the kind of writing where everyone and everything just exist. So full of "to be" verbs that nothing is happening.

They were tired. 
He is flummoxed.
She was downtrodden. 


"Well, it's passive voice if you toss an "-ing" verb in there, isn't it?"

No, friends. It's not. It's just the progressive form of the verb. It's continuous action in whatever tense you chose.

They were trudging.
He is trying to solve the problem.
She was hanging her head.


Dull writing can be remedied by zapping spunk into your verbs. Show some moxie and write sentences that paint a picture. Create a vivid scene!

All four of them, backs bent low, shoulders curved, toes dragging tracks in the dirt, trudged into town. Had they been in a fight? Scabbed and dirty, not a single man made eye contact with the bystanders. Until she spoke.

Stymied, he erased the equation and scrawled in some new figures. The clock ticked. Anxiety made his spine buzz and his scalp itch. Shoving a hand into his hair, he chewed the inside of his cheek and tapped his pencil against the desk.

Her cheeks burned. His words sapped her strength and drained her of any desire to fight back. No way she could win a fight with him--not when cheating was as easy for him as breathing.

Showing versus telling is the game we're playing here. It has nothing to do with passive voice.

So what is passive voice? (I'm down to twenty seconds! Ack!)

Every verb has four attributes: person, number, voice, and mood. 

Voice can be either active or passive.

Active voice: the subject does the verbing.
Passive voice: the subject is verbed by some other noun.

Active: I struck the match.

Passive: The match was struck by me.

So, are there times when passive voice is necessary? Even useful?

Sure. Go back to the downtrodden girl. She's been victimized. There might be a scene where you want that theme to resonate. The text might read:

She'd been lied to by all of them. She was used up and broken. And now here she was, abandoned.

Of course, verbs in the passive voice do not cause people to cheer.

(They might even cause people to look for a bookmark.) Wield them wisely. Limit them.

True passive voice has its place, but it still tends to be dull.

Let me be honest. It was hard for me to type those sentences in the passive voice. I desperately wanted to revise it:

Every one of them had lied. They'd used her and left her broken and abandoned.

Do you see the difference?

Strike the match.

Be compelling. Show the actions being done by the subjects. And show the results.

Time's up. Do you understand the difference between passive voice and dull writing? Think you can avoid them both and drive your story forward? In the comments section, try to write a sentence in both the active and the passive voice.

Have fun!

Thanks for the images Artur84 and Idea Go at


  1. Bethany... I love your examples. I learn from examples and yours made it clear, and you and I know how much help I need. :) Thanks.

    1. Aw, thanks, Jo. I'm just glad I'm able to help. Blessings!

  2. I appreciate your comments. The comments were written by a gifted writer.

    1. Heh. James, you finagled a grin out of me. I am amused by your gifted writing. *wink*

  3. What a great post on passive and active. Here's my two sentences:

    Active: Jillian raced to the bathroom and squealed in victory. "Too bad, so sad, Sis. Wait your turn."

    Passive: The limp frog was held by my scrawny neighbor.

    1. Aw, Erin. I feel sad for the sister AND the frog, but way to go on the active/passive dealio. Thanks for stopping by

  4. Good article! The hardest thing after college (studied philosophy) was to stop writing in the passive voice. Don't even want to write one as an example.

    1. Fair enough. *wink* Thank you for taking the time to compliment the article then. Even more. :)

  5. She was going to post a comment. The comment to be posted was bleh.
    Until she read the post.... er, the post was read.
    The comment was written.
    She wrote the comment.
    You know, I'm not even sure now what was the comment.

    1. Ha! Excellent.
      You were confused by the process.
      The writing mixed you up.

  6. The wine was spilled.
    The cabin boy tripped and sloshed wine onto the floor.

    Great write-up on passive/active! :)

    1. Nice! That's a great second sentence. Thanks for swinging by!

  7. Thank you. I get annoyed when I see people explaining the active voice inaccurately.

    Or, should I say, "It annoys me when I see people explaining the active voice inaccurately."

    But you did a great job, first showing what it is not, then showing what it is. Great title, too, by the way.

    I find passive voice works well when you want to show your character is not in control. It can convey an ominous sense.

    "She was led down a dark hall. Sobbing sounds could be heard behind some of the heavy iron doors. A dim light could be seen from an open door up ahead. She was shoved inside the small room and told to sit on a cold metal chair against the wall. Then the lights were turned off, the door was shut, and she was left alone."

    1. Donna, thank you for those compliments! I agree about using passive voice to show lack of control. I do think--if I were your editor--I'd challenge you on using quite so much of it in that scene. With seven independent clauses, ALL passive, it loses some of its punch and begins to sound humdrum. Here's what I'd suggest (forgive me if you're not just makes such a great example!): Keep the passive voice for the clauses about your CHARACTER. Make the rest of the details active. Like this.

      She was led down a dark hall. Sounds of sobbing filtered from beneath the some of the heavy iron doors. A dim light glowed from an open door up ahead. She was shoved inside the small room and commanded to sit on a cold metal chair against the wall. The lights went black, the door slammed shut, and she was left alone.

      See what I mean? Then EVERYTHING is against her. Even the sobs, the darkness, and the door are her enemies. What do you think?

    2. Oh, I agree. And when I use this passage (or one very similar) for teaching purposes, I don't have every single sentence in the passive voice. I just did it now to make a point that it can be done. I had to rethink the sentence about the light because I kept putting it in active voice and it was hard to make it passive.

      Thanks again for your post. I enjoyed it.

    3. I know what you mean! When I wrote my examples, I really struggled. I'm such a Passive-Seek-and-Destroyer. And yet, in the manuscript I finished editing last night, I actually suggested passive twice. *gasp*. But it was like you said: Out of the character's control.


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