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Posted on 05.16.2012

Getting Aggressive About Passive Voice

Passive voice. That lofty, abstruse language construct so multifarious it tests even the journeyman writer - and completely eludes the novice.

But take note. Understanding passive voice - and its emasculating impact on otherwise good prose - is crucially important to improving one's writing. If the goal is to write strong, persuasive, behavior-changing content, the writer must eliminate passive voice in all but the most impactful instances.

While the Internet is replete with examples of poor writing, it provides many good sources to help the student writer (and I hope even the most accomplished novelist, journalist, essayist and scribe would count him/herself in this hungry crowd) learn, detect and destroy passive voice. Such resources can be found here, here and here (and note that I just used passive voice). But as an appetizer to a heartier serving of study in passive voice, I offer a few quick tips to assist the average editor and proofreader in spotting this destructive tendency.

Avoid almost any use of the word "there." The glaring "there" is a certainly the most flagrant demonstration of passive voice. Like a bald, fat, shirtless man who has proudly painted the logo of his favorite NFL team on his hairy chest and rounded abdomen, "there" makes no bones about its upbringing. Sentences built on "there is" or "there are" are so weak they can be completed in literally millions of ways. Consider these wildly contrasting examples:

"There is - a quiet beauty in the act of baptism." 

"There is - nothing but depravity and course behavior resting on the limbs of their family tree."

"There is - a delicious surprise wrapped in the waffle cone of a nutty buddy."

"There is - a sniper in the state capitol."

Do you really want to employ a construct that can be so easily manipulated?

Look for subjects hiding at the end of the sentence. "The trainer was scratched by the lion." In this example, the subject of this potentially powerful sentence cowers at the end of the copy, limiting the action of the thought and almost eliminating the possibility of augmentation. (How does one modify "was"?) Just imagine the possibilities when active voice prevails: "The lion scratched the trainer" is quickly and easily evolved to "The brooding lioness quickened her pace and turned on the unsuspecting trainer, snapping a massive paw against his trousers and tearing fabric, fringe and flesh in the blink of her feline eye."

Watch out for sentences that rely on "to be." In truth, I think most all acts of passive voice can be blamed on this particular flaw (don't miss that I just used passive voice - again). While not every sentence with a verb form of "to be" is passive - or necessarily bad - the discerning write will certainly review it carefully. Consider this: "The cake in the break room has been eaten." As passive voice is wont to do, it devours the subject in this sentence. (Go ahead, try to diagram it and see for yourself). We know that eating is (or was) the action here, but who actually did the eating? We don't know! 

As with the example above, this sentence can really come to life when converted to active voice: "The devious data center representatives slipped from their cubicles one by one, surreptitiously devouring the cake in fork-sized bits until the icing read only "Hap - ay" and even the exclamation point was consumed. 

As with most of society's serious woes, the first step to overcoming passive voice is knowing how to identify it. Microsoft Word offers a "grammar check" option that catches most uses of passive voice and can be a helpful tutor as you refine your active voice skills. What is your favorite trick for avoiding passive voice?

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