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Making Verbs Work. Passive versus Active Voice. Use strong verbs. Verbs provide the momentum of writing. Proper verb choice makes the difference between crisp, clear writing and bloated, clumsy writing. What is the difference?.

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Making verbs work

Making Verbs Work

Passive versus Active Voice

Use strong verbs
Use strong verbs.

  • Verbs provide the momentum of writing.

  • Proper verb choice makes the difference between crisp, clear writing and bloated, clumsy writing.

What is the difference
What is the difference?

A sentence is in the active voice when the subject does the acting instead of being the recipient of the acting.

Active: Lowell depicts a grim view of marriage.

Passive: Marriage is depicted as grim by Lowell.

What is the difference1
What is the difference?

A verb that conveys action—as opposed to a verb that merely links the subject to a thought.

Active: Jim tossed the report away.

Linking: Jim was tired of the report.

Active verbs
Active verbs

  • just naturally go with writing that is in the active voice.

  • When you put the subject front and center, doing something, you will probably find yourself using stronger, more interesting verbs.

Active voice is generally stronger
Active voice is generally stronger

  • Both kinds of verbs are useful in writing. That’s why we have both.

  • But, unless you’re a diplomat or bureaucrat or some other kind of weasel, you need to rely on the active voice more than the passive.

Active voice
Active Voice

  • Uses direct action verbs

  • Has a clearly defined actor and action

Passive voice
Passive Voice

  • Uses “to be” verb forms

  • Emphasizes what was found, not who did the finding

  • Can be pedantic and wordy in the hands of amateurs

Which verb form to use
Which verb form to use

  • Largely a matter of what you want to emphasize

    • Active Voice emphasizes an action taken by a subject.

    • Passive Voice

      • emphasizes what was found, the end result.

      • hides who was responsible for the action.

Replace wimpy verb phrases
Replace wimpy verb phrases

Strong verbs

  • Determine

  • Measure

  • analyze

Weak verb phrases

  • Make a determination

  • Perform a measurement

  • Carry out an analysis

Transform into active voice
Transform into active voice

  • Change nouns ending in –tion, -ment, and –ance back into verbs.

    Indication  indicate

    Contamination  contaminate

    Measurement  measure

    Variation  vary

Use is verbs sparingly
Use “is” verbs sparingly

  • Is beginning  begins

  • Is used to detect  detects

When to use is
When to use “is”

  • If sentence defines or equates

    Lowell’s poem is a sonnet.

When not to use is
When not to use “is”

  • In sentences that do not present a definition or equality

  • To analyze

Verb tenses
Verb tenses

  • Using active voice eliminates awkward tense shifts

Parallel construction
Parallel Construction

  • Verbs must be in the same form

Parallel vs non parallel
Parallel vs. Non-parallel

faulty parallelism:

She revels in chocolate, walking under the moonlight, and songs from the 1930s jazz period.

good parallelism:

She revels in sweet chocolate eclairs, long moonlit walks, and classic jazz music.

good parallelism:

She loves eating chocolate eclairs, taking moonlit walks, and singing classic jazz.

Advantages of active voice
Advantages of active voice:

  • Shorter, more direct

  • More forceful

  • Greater clarity (The reader knows immediately who is doing what.)

  • Sharper imagery

Which is more effective
Which is more effective?

  • Stay away from the hot wire. It can kill you.

  • The hot wire should be avoided. You can be killed by it.

Should you ever use passive voice yes
Should you ever use passive voice? Yes.

  • Jon Franklin says that if you try to write entirely in the active voice, you are likely to produce something unreadable.

  • He’s right. The active voice is great, but you can have too much of a good thing.

Use passive voice
Use passive voice

  • When the actor is unknown or unimportant.

    The knife was found beside the body.

  • Or when you want to focus on the receiver of the action more than on the actor.

    The teacher was fired for his political activism.

Use passive voice1
Use passive voice

  • When you want a gentler or more diplomatic approach.

    A teenage girl was killed Tuesday by a gunshot wound that police said was self-inflicted.

  • When you want to strengthen the impression of objectivity—as, for example, in a research report.

Use passive voice2
Use passive voice

  • When you want to achieve a particular effect—whether it be wry, sardonic, sarcastic or comedic.

Good writers use both voices
Good writers use both voices.

  • Use active voice whenever possible.

  • You need to know when to use one voice or the other, and when to use them together.


  • Celia M. Elliott, University of Illinois,

  • John Rains, Writing Coach, The Fayetteville Observer,

  • Dr. L. Kip Wheeler, Carson Newman College,

  • Patricia Burgey, UWG