JS Tip 297: Active and Passive Voice, Part II

Tips from Jefferson Smith Training and Consulting

** From the Writing Workshops: Active and Passive Voice, Part II

We explored this topic five years ago. We’ve had recent inquiries, so we’ll explore the topic again in a series of tips.

Three Warning Flags for Passive Voice

Passive voice will generally display three warning flags.

Your first warning flag is some form of the verb “to be.”

Consider this example sentence:

The report was written by Sarah.

Is there any one of the eight forms of “to be”: is, am, are, was, were, be, being, been?

Sure there is: Was as in “was written.”

If you have some form of the verb “to be,” continue to the second warning flag. If you don’t, you probably don’t have passive voice.

Your second warning flag is when the word describing the action ends in “-ed,” “-en,” or some variation. (Grammarians call this a past participle, but don’t worry about it. It won’t be on the test.)

The report was written by Sarah.

What’s the word describing the action? “Written.” What’s the ending? “—en.” Bingo. You’ve picked up your second warning flag.

Your third warning flag is how, when you get to the word describing the action, you can ask yourself the question, “By whom?” or “By what?”

Think of our example:

The report was written by Sarah.

When you get to the word describing the action (“written”), can you ask yourself “By whom?” Sure, you can. That’s a natural question. Who did it? Who wrote the report?

If you find all three warning flags, then you probably have passive voice. We’ll explore rewriting passive into active in our next tip.

Last week, we asked if you could find a well-known quotation or passage that used passive voice.

Wow.

We have a bunch of winners.

Kent Woolf of Flowserve pointed to the holidays: “The stockings were hung by the chimney with care.” Yup. Passive voice.

Bryon Densley of Ultradent found a quote by Mark Twain (in Twain’s introduction to Huckleberry Finn): “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”

And Maria Hildago of Wells Fargo found a quotation from Napoleon: “The best way to keep one’s word is not to give it.”

Excellent.

Excellent.

Excellent.

** Recent Tips

JS Tip 296: Active and Passive Voice, Part I
JS Tip 295: Some More Discussion about Honesty
JS Tip 294: Some Answers about Lying
JS Tip 293: A Think Piece
JS Tip 292: Say "Thank you" on Veteran's Day

 

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