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Understand active and passive verbs once and for all

active and passive verbsYou’ve heard the advice: passive verbs are a big no-no and active verbs are essential to good writing.

But do you know the difference? Can you spot active and passive verbs in your own writing? Do you know when passive verbs should be used?

Knowing active verbs are usually better than passive verbs is one thing. Putting it into practice isn’t so easy.

Why active verbs are better than passive verbs (most of the time)

Active verbs get to the point. They clearly show who or what is doing something and who’s responsible. They’re straightforward, loud, and proud and they shout, “Hey! It’s me! I’m doing this, and I take full responsibility for it!”

Active verbs are easy to understand, and they make writing flow more easily.

Plus, active verbs mean more concise writing. That’s because using them requires fewer words than passive verbs.

Passive verbs, on the other hand, are sneaky little buggers. They don’t like responsibility, so they hide and shift the blame—politicians know them well. And you don’t want to sound like a two-bit stumper, do you?

On top of that, passive verbs force a reader to think harder. They create wordiness, and they’re often found in long, convoluted, confusing sentences.

Understanding the difference between active and passive verbs means you’ll be able to detect passive verbs and change them to active verbs. You’ll even know when the passive form of a verb should be used. And that means writing that’s crisp, clear, and effective.

Let’s review verbs first

Verbs are words that show action (action verbs) or conditions and relationships (linking verbs). English also has helping (auxiliary) verbs. You know that, right?

Warning: don’t confuse “action” verbs with “active” verbs. Action, linking, and helping verbs are in one category—types of verbs. Active and passive verbs are in another category—how certain verbs are used—called voice.

Action verbs are verbs that describe something that can be done. Verbs like eat, walk, run, throw, speak, build, perform, write, pronounce, activate, destroy, and launch are all action verbs.

She writes like a maniac.
They built a website.
We’ve launched a product.

Linking verbs include any form of the verb be (am, are, is, was, were, being, been, etc.) as well as become and seem. Linking verbs connect the subject of the sentence—the main person, place, or thing—with additional information.

Her writing is good.
The website seems functional.
The product became a popular item.

True linking verbs by are neither active nor passive. They link—connect—the subject of the verb with other information, such as an adjective or a noun. Some verbs, however, can act as both linking and action verbs: smell, taste, look, appear, feel, prove, grow, and remain.

The book looked good (linking).
I looked for the book everywhere (action).

Helping verbs (also called auxiliary verbs) are forms of the verb be as well as do and have.

Belinda was writing all night.
She will have been writing for 12 hours by morning.
He did write a book.
She will be writing another one.
She does write a lot.
She hasn’t written for a few days.

And last but definitely not least, the main verb in a sentence is called a predicate.

That’s the main verb that goes with the subject of the sentence. Sometimes two or more verbs go with the subject, and that’s called a compound predicate. 

And a sentence might contain more than one verb that’s not the predicate (main verb), so you have to be careful.

I read, write, and take walks with my dog every day while my kids play with their friends. (The verb play isn’t a main verb or predicate.)

The term “predicate” isn’t important in itself, but you should be able to distinguish a main verb in a sentence from other verbs that might be part of the sentence.

All refreshed on verbs now? That’s just the basics but enough for a warm up.

And a quick review of subjects and direct objects

Subjects are what or who the sentence is about (the main actor), and they always include at least one noun, pronoun, or word functioning as a noun. A subject can even be a group of words.

Writing isn’t usually the road to riches. (Writing is the subject.)
It doesn’t make you rich overnight, if ever. (It is the subject.)
Writing and reading are my favorite activities. (Writing and reading is a compound subject.)
Writers work hard. (Writers is the subject.)
To write well is a worthy goal. (To write well is the subject.)

Lots of nouns, pronouns, and groups of words can be included in a sentence, but if you ask “who or what is doing this verb or being this verb,” you’ll find the subject.

Direct objects are the immediate recipients of the action, the item the verb affects.

While a subject is someone or something that performs an action, a direct object receives that action and typically answers the question “what.”

What did the writer do? She wrote a book. (Book is the direct object.)
What did she edit? She edited her manuscript. (Manuscript is the direct object.)
What did the dog eat? The dog ate her rough draft. (Draft is the direct object.)

Now let’s look at passive and active verbs

You might believe active verbs are lively, energetic, and descriptive. Passive verbs, on the other hand, must be boring or sedate. Maybe gallop is a more active verb compared to run, and shriek is more active than cry.

That’s a common belief, and others might think linking verbs are passive verbs. But neither is correct. Identifying passive and active verbs is actually more complicated and easier at the same time.

Active verbs show the subject of the sentence performing the action.

Belinda wrote the book.
The writer fired the editor.
Her friend edited the manuscript.
The proofreader found typos and punctuation errors.

The sentence pattern is like this: subject + verb + direct object

Passive verbs show the subject receiving the action. Think recipient or victim.

The book was written by Belinda.
The editor was fired by the writer.
The manuscript was edited by her friend.
Typos and punctuation errors were found by the readers.

Subject + helping verb/verb + doer of action

These examples are super simple. In real life, they’re usually much more complicated with the “core” sentence buried in a boatload of other words. Here’s the first sentence from the samples above jazzed up a bit:

Active: After many long years of painful thinking and brainstorming, Belinda finally wrote the book she had been dreaming of since childhood.

Subject (doer of action, Belinda) + verb (wrote) + direct object (book)

Passive: After many long years of painful thinking and brainstorming, the book that Belinda had been dreaming of since childhood was finally written (by someone).

Subject (book) + verb (was+written) + someone, implied doer of action (context would provide a clue)

Identifying passive verbs

Passive verbs always have a direct object—that’s the key to identification. And if you’re not sure, test it.

Here’s a sentence from a scathingly humorous review of Fifty Shades of Grey in The New Yorker.

Ana, as she is usually called, first meets Christian Grey at Grey House, which is home to Grey Enterprises, in Seattle.

Subject (doer of action, Ana) + verb (meets) + direct object (Christian Grey)

You can see this is an active verb because the subject is doing something rather than being acted upon as a passive recipient.

And that’s the pattern for an active verb, so this sentence isn’t passive. But what if it looked like this?

Christian Grey is first met at Grey House, which is home to Grey Enterprises, by Ana, as she is usually called, in Seattle.

Subject (receiver of action, Christian Grey) + verb (is+met) + doer of action (Ana)

This is passive because the subject isn’t doing anything. He’s passively receiving action—being met by Ana. Now that’s the definition of a passive verb construction plus, if I understand the story, it isn’t quite his thing.

Most important: which sentence is more clear and concise? Which one is more easily read?

Let’s try another one from a blog post on the Huffington Post called 5 Hawaii Adventures For An Unforgettable Valentine’s Day

If you’re lucky, the peaks of Hihimanu, Namalokama, and Mamalahoa will be draped with blissful waterfalls.

Subject (receiver of action, peaks) + verb (will be+draped) + doer of action (blissful waterfalls).

In this case “with” is used instead of “by,”  but the two are interchangeable.

This sentence uses a passive verb. The peaks aren’t doing anything; something is done to them. They’re the recipient of the action and, in this case, it’s the waterfalls draping them.

Let’s change it to active now.

If you’re lucky, blissful waterfalls will drape the peaks of Hihimanu, Namalokama, and Mamalahoa.

Subject (doer of action, waterfalls) + verb (will drape) + direct object (peaks)

Should the original passive sentence be changed to active? Share in the comments.

When should you use passive verbs?

Active verbs are best in most cases. They’re clear, easy to understand, and concise. But sometimes passive verbs are the best choice when you want the reader to focus on the recipient of the action. Here are a few examples.

Customer service situations and tricky discussions

Let’s say someone’s Internet connection or cable has been shut off due to non-payment. The customer has emailed and demanded an explanation.

Active: You didn’t pay your bill, and we shut off your service.

The active voice sounds like an accusation, and the company sounds nasty.

Passive: Your bill wasn’t paid (by someone implied), and your service has been shut off (by us implied).

The passive voice is less confrontational that the active, and it’s likely to get better results with the customer. This can be applied to many situations, even talks between friends, partners, spouses, and children.

Active: You didn’t get me anything for Valentine’s Day.

Passive: I didn’t get anything (from you implied) for Valentine’s Day.

The active voice is an accusation. The passive voice is a bit softer but still communicates the message, and it’s more likely to lead to a discussion rather than an argument.

Scientific and research writing

Active: We tested the two drugs throughly, and we didn’t observe an interaction.

With the active voice, the focus is on the researchers, and it’s distracting to someone who wants to read about drug interactions. Who did the testing (in the context of the writing) isn’t important, and it sounds defensive.

Passive: The two drugs were tested thoroughly (by us implied), and no interaction was observed (by us implied).

The focus is on the drugs because the scientists or researchers aren’t important. Therefore, the passive is more effective.

Journalism

Sometimes the doer of an action is unknown, and the passive voice is the right choice.

The store was robbed late last night, and the clerk was stabbed by an unknown assailant.

You can apply any of these examples to your own writing. When you want the focus on the recipient of the action, use the passive.

And that’s the scoop on active vs. passive verbs

In the interest of (relative) brevity, I’ve left out a lot of fussy details. But you get the picture. Here’s a recap.

  • Verbs have 3 main forms: action, linking, and helping verbs
  • True linking verbs are neither passive nor active
  • The main verb in a sentence is the predicate and shouldn’t be confused with other verbs
  • Subjects are what or who the sentence is about
  • Direct objects are the immediate recipients of the action
  • Verbs have voice: active and passive
  • Active verbs show the subject of the sentence performing the action.
  • Passive verbs show the subject receiving the action.
  • Passive verbs always have a direct object
  • Sometimes passive is preferred over active

Have questions? Need clarification? That’s what the comment section is for, so go for it!

Photo credit: jayhay2336
5 comments… add one
  • In the “peaks” sentence,it seems that the passive version makes it soft and romantic while the active version is more direct. I like either one, depends on the piece of writing.

    Reply
    • Hi Lucille, I agree it could go either way, but I prefer the passive version. That’s because the focus is on “peaks,” and it’s easy to imagine waterfalls running down mountain peaks. In the active version, I get an image of waterfalls that are somehow draped on mountain peaks, and it just doesn’t work. So, unless the sentence is completely reworked (that might be worthwhile), I’d go with the passive. And you’re right–depends on context.

      Thanks for your input!

      Reply
  • Let’s look at this sentence: Harriet Tubman was called the Moses of her people.
    The subject is not actively doing something; therefore the verb is in the passive voice.
    Yet, Harriet Tubman and the Moses of her people are two names for the same person. Isn’t the passive voice verb acting as a linking verb? Or

    Reply
    • Hi Merle,

      Yes, that’s the passive voice. My test would be this: Harriet Tubman was called (by someone) the Moses of her people.

      Then I would see if I can make it active, which I can: (Many) called Harriet Tubman the Moses of her people.

      If we look at the sentence exactly as you have it, no, the passive voice verb “was called” is not a linking verb. But if we do it like this, it is:

      Harriet Tubman was the Moses of her people.

      With the verb “called” removed, it’s a linking verb because it “links” the subject with additional information about it. Linking verbs include any form of the verb be plus become, and seem.

      Make sense?

      Reply
      • Called the Moses of her people, Harriet Tubman was [whatever the rest of the sentence is].

        Now “called” is, unambiguously, the participle form of the verb, acting as an adjective (describing Harriet Tubman), yes?

        If so, then the original sentence could also be interpreted as:
        [noun] [linking verb] [adjective]
        [Harriet Tubman] [was] [called….]

        Or am I missing something?

        Reply

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