In June of 1938, the first ever superhero—Superman—appeared in issue No. 1 of Action Comics. Note that it wasn’t “Passive Comics.”
Why? The mild-mannered Clark Kent may passively fumble through his days, but bold and brave Superman takes action!
You, too, can turn your bumbling passive verbs into superheroic active verbs, making your writing energetic and bold!
What are active and passive verbs?
An active verb tells what the subject of the sentence is doing.
Superman throws the car!
The verb “throws” tells what Superman is doing. He does the action, and the car receives the action.
A passive verb tells what is happening to the subject.
The car is being thrown by Superman.
The verb “is being thrown” tells what is happening to the car, not what the car is doing.
Who throws the car? Why, Superman, of course.
The active verb “throws” is succinct and strong. The passive verb “is being thrown” is wordy and weak.
When you find a passive sentence bumbling along in your writing, you can turn it into a super-sentence by making it active!
How can I turn passive into active?
Imagine that you have this passive sentence.
Clark Kent is being steamrolled by ace reporter Lois Lane.
Find the verb: “is being steamrolled.” Who or what is doing the action? Ace reporter Lois Lane. (You can often find the answer in a prepositional phrase, “by ace reporter Lois Lane.”)
Now make your answer into the subject of a new sentence.
Ace reporter Lois Lane steamrolls Clark Kent.
Notice how the sentence has basically flipped around. The noun at the front goes at the end, and the noun at the end goes at the front. The complicated verb is now simple. And, best of all, ace reporter Lois Lane takes action!
What if the passive sentence doesn’t say who takes action?
Some passive sentences don’t indicate who or what is doing the action.
Superman’s strength is being sapped!
Who or what could be sapping Superman’s strength? To turn this passive sentence active, you have to guess the subject of the new sentence.
Lex Luthor saps Superman’s strength!
Perhaps. But what gives this arch-villain such power?
Kryptonite saps Superman’s strength!
Are passive sentences ever okay?
Lazy writing leans heavily on passive constructions, which is why you should convert most sentences to active. However, in some situations, a passive sentence does the job best.
1. If the actor is unknown or unimportant
Let’s look again at this passive sentence:
Superman’s strength is being sapped!
That sentence holds us in suspense because we don’t know who or what is doing the action. An active sentence would fill in the blank for readers. So, when you don’t want to reveal the actor (or you don’t know who the actor is), a passive sentence works well.
2. If the receiver of the action is more important than the doer
Sometimes you want to focus on the receiver of the action.
Superman is smashed by the gigantic meteor.
We care a lot more about Superman than we do about a gigantic meteor. Notice how the active version seems to have its priorities wrong.
The gigantic meteor smashes Superman.
After all, you would say, “I was hit by a reckless driver” not “A reckless driver hit me.”
3. If you are breaking bad news
Active sentences are direct and energetic, two traits that feel blunt and callous when breaking bad news. Imagine saying this to Lois Lane:
Lex Luthor kills Superman!
Wouldn’t it be more compassionate to use a passive sentence?
Superman has been killed by Lex Luthor.
Why do I suddenly feel so down?
You’ve spent the last couple of minutes in Passive Land. There, Superman’s strength was sapped, he was smashed by a gigantic meteor, and he was killed by Lex Luthor.
What a drag!
This is a job for super-verbs!
Superman smashes through the meteor, springs from the smoking crater, rockets to the lair of Lex Luthor, and nabs his arch-nemesis!
Hooray for super-verbs!