JS Tip 271: Recognizing Passive Voice

Tips from Jefferson Smith Training and Consulting

** From the Writing Workshops: Three Warning Flags for Passive Voice

A few weeks ago, in our conciseness series, we talked about active and passive voice. We suggested you use active voice instead of passive. That tip generated a lot of interest. We’ll address that interest this week and next.

This week, we’ll talk about spotting passive voice.

Passive voice will generally display three warning flags.

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

Look at the 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.

Think of our example:

The report was written by Sarah.

What’s the word describing the action? “Written.” What’s the ending? “-en.” Bingo. You’ve picked up the 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?”

Again, 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. “The report was written—by whom?” 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 the rare appropriate use of passive voice in our next tip.


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