Keep Them Active

By Cecil ("Cec") Murphey

I have been honored by you because I have been given this award.

The previous sentence, although grammatical, bores readers. Twice in that sentence I used the passive voice with"have been honored" and"have been given."

Now I'll flip it around and write the sentence in the active voice: You have honored me because you gave me this award. Both sentences are grammatical, but the second is clearer, stronger, more direct, and uses fewer words. That classifies itself as better writing.

We call this principle: "Prefer the active, avoid the passive."

When I teach beginning writers, often they don't grasp the importance of this principle."Looks fine to me either way," they say, or sometimes they insist,"The passive voice sounds better." They mistakenly assume that the passive voice lends their work authority, perhaps even a quality of majesty. In reality, the passive voice sounds pompous or limp. Why not strive for directness and clarify by using as few words as possible?

What do we mean by active and passive voice? Active refers to someone doing things as opposed to events simply occurring."Irene delivered the package to Melvin" compared to"The package was delivered to Melvin by Irene." Strunk and White put it this way:"The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive."

The active voice refers to the subject of the sentence doing something and the passive means the subject is being acted on. For example: Ed threw the ball is active; the ball was thrown by Ed is passive. It may seem like a small matter, but the passive voice requires more words and weakens the writing.

Try this example:

Arlene was infuriated by his words. (Passive)

His words infuriated Arlene. (Active)

Stephen King says that timid writers use passive verbs for the same reason timid lovers like passive partners—they're safe. There's no troublesome action to contend with.

I call it lazy writing. Good writing sizzles with excitement—that is, strong verbs express conviction and authority. Think of it this way: When our material appears in print, readers' minds endow us with authority. People read for entertainment or to gain information—and expect us to deliver. Powerful writing flows from robust verbs; passive writing limps along and hides behind extraneous words.

Maybe it helps to think of the principle this way: When we cast a sentence in which the subject does something, readers visualize action. Our brains work better when we encounter mental images. Passive expressions bog us down.

King says that the passive is weak, circuitous, and frequently torturous. He offers this example:"My first kiss will always be recalled by me as how my romance with Shayna was begun." This tortures the reader, so he suggests:"My romance with Shayna began with our first kiss. I'll never forget it".

Anemic writing listlessly falters across the page in the following examples:

• I'm sorry my report was poorly delivered. (If you're going to apologize, apologize: I'm sorry I wrote a bad paper.)

• Mistakes were made. (This dilutes the apology and hedges on the matter of guilt. Isn't it stronger to write,"We made mistakes"?)

• It has been found regrettable that the villagers' lives were terminated by the battle. This is pompous and boring prose. Try: It's sad that many villagers died in the battle.

We need to ask ourselves,"Does the subject of the sentence do anything or is something done to it?" Whenever we write in the passive, we weaken the impact and tend to lose the visual image we yearn to create for readers.

Here are two ways to avoid the passive.

1. Read a hard copy of your manuscript. Whenever you spot a passive verb or a state-of-being verb, circle it in red. That will help you trap those weak verbs and passive statements. Then rewrite the sentence.

2. You can set most computers to flag passive verbs. In Word, under Tools go to Options and then to Spelling and Grammar. At the bottom of the page is a tab called Writing Style. If you click that, Word will flag passive voice. (Notice that I didn't write,"The passive voice will be flagged by Word.")

Finally, don't confuse state-of-being verbs such as am, is, are, to be, being with the passive voice. Consider the difference between "I teach" (action verb) and "I am a teacher" (verb of being). Clever writers learn ways to avoid using such constructions because they're frail and create emaciated sentences. Fresh, exciting verbs enliven our prose.

Cecil (“Cec") Murphey has written, co-written, or ghostwritten more than 90 books, both fiction and nonfiction. His Gifted Hands, the autobiography of Dr. Ben Carson, has now sold nearly two million copies since its publication in 1990. He ghosted Franklin Graham's autobiography, Rebel With a Cause, which won an ECPA Gold Medallion. Reader's Digest magazine condensed I Choose to Stay: A Black Teacher Refuses to Desert the Inner City (Kensington) and Disney has optioned it for film as"The Mighty Bishops." Kinetic Pictures has optioned 90 Minutes in Heaven, written for Don Piper(Revell). His recent books include When Someone You Love Has Alzheimer's (Beacon Hill) and Committed but Flawed: Finding New Ways to Grow Spiritually (AMG). You can learn more about Cec at his website located at:

© 2004 Cecil Murphey. All Rights Reserved. Used with Permission.