EDITING 101: 61 – Passive Voice versus Passive Verbs…

Passive Voice versus Passive Verbs

You may have heard of the great advice to get rid of the extra “to be” verbs as you self-edit. I concur with that task. Not only is it boring for the reader, but using passive verbs makes your writing weak. That’s why they’re termed…well…passive verbs.

However, contrary to what some people believe, every use of “was”—or another form of the verb “to be”—is not inherently using the passive voice. “Was” is the legitimate past tense of “to be” and in many cases is 100% correct. Unfortunately, some people who call themselves editors don’t recognize the difference and ruthlessly edit out every instance of “was” in a manuscript.

These are legitimate, correct uses of the past tense of “to be” (although in the last one, you could get rid of the “to be” helper verb and just write “waited”):

The sky was blue.

The man was tall.

Emily was waiting on the corner.

The passive voice—which is very different from a passive verb—happens when the action is happening to something rather than the main noun actively acting.

This is passive voice: “It was determined by the gang that the gold was real.”

The subject is weak and indeterminate. Two actors, the gang and the gold, are vying for the lead role here, but “the gang” is the true bearer of the news about the gold. Placing the active subject (the gang) at the beginning of the sentence makes the sentence robust and puts the emphasis on a stronger, more descriptive verb, “to determine,” instead of the weak “to be”: “The gang determined that the gold was real.”

There are legitimate uses for passive voice. Governments and other large entities (along with politicians and journalists) sometimes use it to deflect blame (but I’m not sure those are “legitimate”). 🙂 And sometimes, the passive voice is a political instrument:

I acknowledge that mistakes were made.” –Atty. Gen. Alberto Gonzales. Active voice would be: “I acknowledge that I made mistakes.”

In a book I’ve been editing for the past year (developmental editing), the author and I decided that one weaselly politician’s speeches would be filled with passive voice. His personal, non-acting voice is not passive. It’s a show designed to soothe the masses. 🙂

Passive voice was also frequently used in research reports, but the scientific community has been moving away from that: “The subject was then moved to the OR, where their spleen was removed” versus “We moved the subject to the OR, where we removed their spleen.”

Do you have the habit of writing passively without even knowing it?

We’re Dun for today, so keep on Writin’!

Next week we’ll discuss ‘Using the Wrong Song Lyrics’


To see the index and catch up with missed episodes of this series – CLICK HERE


This series is not meant to be (nor will it be) simple static information.

I’ll be here for each post to answer questions, offer suggestions as necessary, and interact with you.

If there’s something you specifically want (or need!) to see addressed in terms of self-editing, please let me know in the comments under this, or any of the articles of the series.




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