How to Avoid Passive Voice Sentences

Passive girl hiding behind fern

Struggling to fix passive voice sentences? This post will explain everything you need to know about passive and active voice and how to easily switch between them! If you found it useful by the end, go ahead and comment below and share with a friend.

Passive Voice vs Active Voice

Active voice structures sentences in the typical fashion with the subject directly performing the action.

Passive voice, on the other hand, reverses the natural order of sentences so the verb acts upon the subject. This voice appears wordier as it usually needs additional helper verbs (a form of “to be”) and prepositions.

In any passive voice examples of the post, I’ll color the subjects red, verbs blue, objects green, and any modifiers pink. So, to quickly illustrate active and passive voice differences:

  • Billy ate fifty hot dogs in one sitting! (active)
  • Fifty hot dogs were eaten by Billy in one sitting! (passive)

Still confused? It might help to review basic English sentence structure. Complete sentences always consist of an independent (or main) clause that has a subject (doer of the main action) and a predicate (verb clause). It might also include an object (the noun that which receives the action).

Articles (the, a, an, …) and prepositions (words that show a relationship in time or location – above, below, inside, in, around, etc…) help connect parts of the sentence. You could also choose to further paint the picture with adjectives (words that modify nouns – big, gentle, yummy…) and adverbs (words that…wait for it…, add to the verb and usually end in “ly” – weirdly, randomly, excitedly…).

Thus, the following are all grammatically correct active voice sentences:

  • Joe loves.
  • Joe loves his wife.
  • Fabulous Joe loves his beautiful wife.
  • Fabulous Joe genuinely loves his beautiful wife.

All of those had the same general thought, but I gave the reader more information each time by adding modifiers. When writing content, you want to add juicy details to spice up a story!

But let’s see how each sound when we convert them into in passive voice sentences (verb acts upon the subject):

  • Love is shown by Joe
  • The wife is loved by Joe
  • The beautiful wife is loved by fabulous Joe.
  • The beautiful wife is loved genuinely by fabulous Joe.

Passive Voice Sentences are Unclear and Wordy

As you probably noticed, the passive voice feels unnatural, choppy, and awkward. You’ll notice in the passive voice verbs like “is” are required to avoid sounding like a Neanderthal.

Passive voice construction also can leave the sentence unclear without a context. In the above passive voice examples, you had to assume that Joe and the wife were married. I certainly wouldn’t want to imply a scene of scandal and infidelity. If I wanted to clear this up, I’d need to add a dependent clause:

  • The wife is loved by her husband, who is named Joe.
  • The wife, who is married to Joe, is loved by her husband.

THOSE ARE REALLY WORDY FOR NO REASON! Of course, a topic might require 500 to 1000 words of content, but simply more words do not equal better content. If readers cannot immediately understand the purpose of the sentence, they will stop reading.

Adjectives and adverbs can change the emotion of the text, but consider the difference in the passive voice:

  • Yummy Town offers fresh baked gooey cookies for the low price of $2.99! (active)
  • Fresh baked gooey cookies are offered by Snack Monster for the low price $2.99! (passive)

I find $3 a bit much for a box of cookies, but I REALLY want cookies. If those two brands are my only options, which would I buy? Based on the copy, they both offer the same product for the same price. In fact, it’s really the same ad except for the helper verb “are” in the passive voice. That’s one extra word I have read that does not enhance any part of the content! It just makes me do more work! And, I am really lazy and have a cookie craving! Thus, subconsciously I am choosing Yummy Town!

Passive Voice Sentences Create Dangling Participles

Adjectives and verb describe the subject. However, in the passive voice, it’s possible to leave out the subject entirely. In such a case, you could have modifiers and verb phrases that describe something that does not exist without a context – known as dangling participles (or dangling modifiers). For example:

  • The website was optimized with the best SEO practices to date!

Optimizing sounds fun, but we don’t know who exactly helped the site. Was it Steven? Jonathan? Since the sentence is unclear, the reader won’t know who deserves credit. To fix it, we need to add the right subject before the predicate:

  • The awesome team of digital marketers at Critical Supply Solutions fully optimized the website with the best SEO practices to date!

Now we have a clear and concise sentence! Remember, if a sentence does not have a clear subject, then it is in the passive voice and contains a dangling participle.

Normally, you would want to avoid this way of writing as it grammatically incorrect, but in some instances, you simply don’t know the subject of the action. You might write something vague on purpose, for example:

  • Henry was murdered last night!

Most people can comprehend that sentence as implying someone killed poor Henry, but do we know the killer was human? Because it’s left up to my imagination, I could fix the sentence in a number of ways:

  • The evil leprechaun murdered Henry last night!
  • A pack of wild dogs murdered Henry last night!
  • Megatron murdered Henry last night!

As a content writer, you don’t want to leave anything ambiguous. You’re not writing a mystery novel.

Fixing Passive Voice Sentences

If you’re struggling to avoid passive voice sentences, you should turn on the passive voice checker in your Mircosoft Word program. The premium version of Grammarly also detects passive voice.

Remember: computer programs never replace human eyes for editing. In your markups, follow the following basic steps to switch from passive to active voice:

 Step 1 – Identify the Subject of a Sentence

We normally write how we talk, even if it doesn’t translate well into text. So read aloud the text and listen for any weird sounding or unnecessary phrases. That’s a good start for general editing, but how do we actually fix passive voice?

First, you need to decide who should actually be the subject of the sentence. You’ll need to understand the context and use some judgment. For example:

  • Thousands of lives are claimed each year by suicide.

Clearly, the subject is “suicide”, but more specifically it would the individual. Suicide itself doesn’t have a literal will and conscience to complete an action, but it may be your intention to convey that imagery. Thus, you could convert it into the active voice a number of ways:

  • Suicide claims the lives of thousands each year.
  • Thousands of people die every year by suicide.
  • Every year, thousands of people commit suicide.

As a writer, you need to decide if people primarily are responsible for their own suicides or does suicide have a mind of its own to force its way on someone? Questions like these you need to clarify early on in your content and keep consistent.

Also, the subject directs the focus of the sentence the story. You could shine the spotlight on the villain or the hero of the plot:

  • Batman nearly captured the Joker!
  • The Joker narrowly escaped Batman’s trap!

Both sides tell the story, but the keep in mind the perspective and tone of the subject changes the emotion of the scene. With the first sentence, I feel bad for Batman and a bit upset he didn’t catch his arch nemesis. In the second, I felt that Joker was on the run and it was still a victory for the caped crusader! A huge part of writing is knowing your audience. Who would your readers root for in the chase?

Whatever you pick as the subject of a sentence, make sure it is a grammatically logical choice that fits your style and purpose in writing.

I thought some pictures might help! Below, the watermelon is not completing an action, but rather is being acted upon, thus making it the object. Tiffany, on the other, completes the action and must, therefore, be the subject of the sentence.

Fixing Passive Voice Step One Illustration
Step 1 – Identify the Subject

The passive voice will usually place the subject directly after the predicate and a preposition toward the end of the sentence.

Step 2 – Reverse Order of the Subject + Predicate Clauses

Okay, now that you’ve identified the subject, you need to place it before the predicate clause so as to give it direct relationship to it.

Fixing Passive Voice Step 2 Illustration
Step 2 – Switch the Subject and Predicate Clauses

Step 3 – Move Object + Eliminate Unneeded Words

Now that you’ve reversed the subject and predicate clauses, the sentence probably still looks weird. It appears this way because the object (in this case, watermelon) is in the wrong place. If the action affects a specified object, then it should logically follow its associated verb. The object, with its modifiers, should always come last in the main clause of an active voice sentence. After it is placed at the end, we can eliminate any prepositions and helper verbs that are no longer needed.

Fixing Passive Voice Step 3 Illustration
Step 3 – Move the Object and Cut out Unneeded Words

In my example, we need to also fix the form of the verb, so the sentence finally is in the active voice like so…

Passive to Active Voice Fixed Sentence
And congrats, you’re done!

Congratulations! You now know how to correct passive voice! Many grammar checking tools do not detect passive voice, making knowledge of this process very valuable!

Passive Voice + Order of Importance

You should know that passive voice is not grammatically incorrect. Most editors consider it a stylistically unwise choice, except in rare situations.

One exception relevant to content marketing involves the order of importance in describing an event. Normally, you’d want to write as concise as possible, writing as much detail in as few words necessary. More words bore readers and, frankly, they just skim for what they need. Yet for that same reason, if you are describing the topic in a journalistic fashion, you should mention first the people and places the reader probably most cares about. Writing this way may shock the reader into reading more to find out who or what was responsible.

In writing quick and witty headlines, you don’t need to include the helper verbs that would normally be required with passive voice.

You may be able to justify each of these sentences being as they are, in the passive:

  • President Lincoln shot by John Wilkes Booth!
  • Kittens miraculously saved by firemen!
  • Lost treasure found by deep sea diver!

If you’re unsure about your copy, always ask a fellow writer for advice or compare it to similar content.

If you need an expert, you can always hire me to review your projects using my freelance writing services.

I’ve graded way too many essays as a teacher. Now I edit all kinds of content material with my marketing job. By far, the most frequent mistakes I find involve choppy and unclear sentences due to overusing the passive voice. We write how we naturally speak. We can understand the passive voice, even incomplete sentences, in verbal communication because we have the context, tone, and body language to help interpret.

However, to really be an effective writer, you have to put yourself in the reader’s shoes.

Word themselves have to flow together in a logical and creative manner to shape your content.

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About the Author: Jonathan Crow

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