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Sentence Strengthening Sunday--The Passive Sentence

Over the next few weekends, I'll share what I've learned--and am still learning--from various writing books and blogs that have made a tremendous difference in my manuscripts by strengthening and simplifying my sentences. Not only how to spot weaknesses, but how to fix them as well.

 Last weekend we covered an easy fix for sentences that abused adverbs and adjectives. Now we're going to dive into something a bit more difficult.

Active vs. Passive 

Active sentence: The subject of the sentence performs the action of the verb.

example: The moose trampled the boy.

Passive sentence: The target of the action is moved to the subject.

example: The boy is trampled by the moose.

Both sentences convey the same thing. But in the passive example the receiver of the action (boy) has been moved to the front, now becoming the subject of the sentence.

Passive sentences aren't incorrect. When used properly they can be a great tool in guiding the reader's focus. The key is knowing when and why you are using them.


active: Somebody hid the papers.

passive: The papers were hidden by someone.

Do you want your reader to focus on the mysterious somebody who hid the papers (active)? Or the papers themselves (passive)? The content of the scene can help determine whether you need the passive or active form.

So when is passive bad?

Passive can lead to wordy sentences

If you've ever heard the phrase 'tighten up your prose' passive sentences could be the culprit. Instead of forming a straight line from A to B, passive sentences tend to dawdle on their way to making a point, making sentences feel long and awkward.


The extra wordiness that usually accompanies passive sentences can be vague and unfocused. Nothing will pull a reader from a story more than stumbling over an unclear sentence.

Passive voice is a communicable disease

You might not realize you've slipped into a passive voice. It starts with one sentence, then a few more. Before you know it, you'll discover an entire scene is written much in this way.

I had this problem with the last few scenes of my WIP. Even during revising, I didn't notice how much I had fallen into passive because those sentences breed like bunnies. Until you've trained your brain to spot them, you might not even notice.

How to spot passive sentences

Grammar check

MS Word has the option to check for passive sentences, but don't rely on this completely. The simplest way to spot passive sentences is to locate the subject of your sentence to see if it is taking the direct action.

*cautionary note: Most people look for 'to be' forms of a verb (am, are, were, etc)  to spot passive voice, but this isn't always the case.
         "I am writing a blog." is not a passive sentence while "A blog is being written by me." is.

For more info check out:

Amanda Hannah

Amanda grew up on a big farm in a small town with one stoplight, one school, and a handful of imaginary friends.She would’ve gone to college forever, but eight years and five majors tested her advisor’s patience. So she moved to Germany to explore creepy castles before landing in Spain where she’s perfecting her Flamenco.

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  1. Uh.... THANK YOU!!!! I needed this. I'm a horrible passive offender!

  2. Ah! This was very helpful! Probably the most helpful in active vs passive that I've ever read!

    Gah, I have the hardest time with this issue. And then when I start to think about it, my sentences become short and choppy in an effort to no be passive. (Wow, these sentences aren't very good either.)

    Hopefully this will help. Thank you!

  3. Virtual hug for this super simplified method of cutting the throats of them sneaky passive sentences!

  4. Awesome post! I love the examples, it helps a lot in my editing.

  5. This is great. I've learned to correct passive sentences over the years but I used to use them a lot.


  6. This post was enjoyed by me. My manuscripts will be checked for passive voice. You will have my thanks rained upon you.

    My brain hurts! lol!

  7. What a great explanation of this! My mom once asked me to explain passive vs. active sentences to her, and I think I made her more confused when I was done LOL.


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Item Reviewed: Sentence Strengthening Sunday--The Passive Sentence Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Amanda Hannah