Use active verbs, not passive verbs, to improve your writing

What are active verbs? In a sentence with an active verb, the subject does the verb.

  • “The cat licked her paw.” In this sentence, the cat is the subject, and it is doing the licking.
  • “Lee ate a sandwich.” In this sentence, Lee is the subject, and Lee is doing the eating.
  • “The red car crashed into the blue car.” In this sentence, the red car is the subject, and it did the crashing.

What are passive verbs? In a sentence with a passive verb, the subject does not do the verb. In fact, we may not know who does the verb.

  • “I was followed home by a dirty dog.” In this sentence, I is the subject, but I does not do the following.
  • “By that time, the contract had been accepted.” In this sentence, the contract did not do the accepting. We don’t know who did the accepting.
  • “Homework was assigned by every teacher.” In this sentence, the homework did not do the assigning.

What are the advantages of active verbs?

  • Clarity—Active verbs make your writing easily understood the first time.
  • Brevity—Using active verbs is almost always the most concise way to write.
  • Action—Your writing zips along when you use active verbs.

Then, why do we have passive verbs?

  • To mask the doer of an action. Sometimes we don’t want to say who did the action of the verb because it might be more diplomatic not to identify who did the action. Or we might not know who did the action. For example, you could say, “Explosions were set off at the port.”
  • To obfuscate. Sometimes a writer deliberately wants to keep the reader confused or unsure.
  • To slow down the action in a narrative.

Henry James is a 19th century American novelist who wrote in the passive voice and often used the verb “to be.” Many readers find his writing ponderous because of its long sentences and lack of action. His writing demands that you reread a sentence to understand it. This kind of writing seems quaint and tedious to 21st century readers who want James to get to the point. But maybe the people he wrote for had leisure to appreciate a slower pace in fiction.

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