Monday, March 13, 2023

Learning to Love Passive Construction

By Carolyn Howard-Johnson, author of the multi award-winning HowToDoItFrugally Series of books for writers including the winningest in the series, The Frugal Editor, just released in its third edition. 

Writers are often told to avoid passive sentences. Reasons for such admonitions are many because they tend to tug on the forward momentum we are usually trying to create. But passive construction can be used effectively, too. In fact we may find instances where our writing improves when use them. We can try to utilize what they’re good at in our writing and—at the same time—recognize their flaws so we can avoid them when they are just plain ugly.

Luckily, good editors are here to help. And so are many books. 

Your editor may help you avoid passive constructions by making suggestions to “activate” them. There are times, however, when you must do your own editing. In this article we’ll cover both how to spot passives and activate them when that is helpful as well as a few instances where you may want to enlist their help. 

Here are three simple passive sentences. See if you can figure out how to make them active and then read some possible edits in the next section. 

1. "I was offended by the President's proclamation." (This passive is sneaky because the word “I” posing there at the front of the sentence seems like the subject, but it hides the prepositional phrase alluding to “by whom.” Put “the President’s proclamation” at the beginning of the sentence, ditch the helping verb, and you’ll see how the sentence comes alive.)

2. "Catherine was being watched."

3. "Catherine was being silly."

Here is your cheat sheet:

1.   For the first you would, of course, make it "The President's proclamation offended me."

2.   For the second, you must ascertain the intended, unnamed subject that would name who was doing the watching, and plug it into the sentence. It might look like this:

"The fuzz watched Catherine."

(So, maybe you'd be more formal and call them "coppers!")

3.   The third example might throw you a curve. That's because it isn't a passive sentence. Here's the thing. We tend to assume a construction is passive when we see helper verbs and "ing" words. But these are not always passive indicators. That's one more thing for you to figure out in addition to deciding whether you want to avoid a passive construction. (You’ll find a lot more on that topic in the just-released third edition of my “The Frugal Editor.”)

You may choose (probably should) to avoid the not-so-active sounding helper verb with a mini rewrite:

“Gracie thought Catherine was being silly.” 

You might ask, “So, if these slowpoke constructions stall the forward motion of my prose, what are the good reasons for using them? 

Etymologists tell us that language develops in ways that facilitate our need to be more clearly understood. When we recognize what passive construction and its copycats can do for us, we may grow to love using passive—at least some of the time. Here are reasons you might want to intentionally use passive construction:

1.   You want to slow down the movement in a saga sent in the 19th century. I do some of that (very judiciously!) in my This Land Divided now being shopped by my    agent. It proves that the passive ploy worked, it won the best in B. Lynn Goodwin’s’s Scintillating Starts contest. 

2.    You need to set one character’s dialogue apart from another to avoid so many fussy dialogue tags. You can do that by assigning one character a tendency to use passive voice. Just be sure you assign that speech pattern to a character it suits—maybe someone who is slow moving, deceitful or…well, you decide. 

3.     You’re writing political copy and you want to avoid pointing a finger at, say, the FBI because you don’t want to get put on the dreaded US No-Fly list. So instead of saying “The FBI is watching Carolyn.” You say, “Carolyn is being watched.” It’s a way to avoid pointing a blaming finger at a perpetrator.

4.     If you write copy for pharmaceutical TV ads, your career could depend on knowing how to use passive voice. I watch TV commercials carefully because I do some acting. The passive voiceovers behind all those happy, healthy faces make me cringe. The use of passive voice clearly avoids assigning any responsibility for all those side effects and deaths. One actually says, “Deaths have happened.” The pharmaceutical company causing all those deaths gets off the hook nicely. 

We need to know how to make verbs active, when to leave them alone, and, yep. when to use them to our advantage. That way, we can take a red pen to them when they are likely to brand us as amateurs, occasionally put them to very good use, and even learn to love them.


Carolyn Howard-Johnson, a multi award-winning author of both fiction and nonfiction, is celebrating the release of the third edition of the winningest book in her HowToDoItFrugally Series of books for writers The Frugal Editor: Do-It-Yourself Editing Secrets from Modern History Press. She is a former publicist for a New York PR firm and was an instructor for the renowned UCLA Extension Writers' Program for nearly a decade. She is also an editor with years of publishing and editing experience including national magazines, newspapers, and her own poetry and fiction. Her The Frugal Book Promoter: How to Do What Your Publisher Won't ( won USA Book News' best professional book award and the Irwin Award. The Great First Impression Book Proposal: Everything You Need To Know To Sell Your Book in 30 Minutes or Less is a helpful little booklet available at It is in its second edition from Modern History Press. And don’t miss another booklet from Modern History Press, Great Little Last-Minute Editing Tips for Writers: The Ultimate Frugal Booklet for Avoiding Word Trippers and Crafting Gatekeeper-Perfect Copy Carolyn also appears in TV commercials for the likes of Blue Shield, Lenscrafters, Disney Cruises (Japan) and Time-Life CDs. Learn more about her at:


*I'd like to add that Carolyn is a dynamo when it comes to book marketing and just the nicest person you will ever meet - which we got to do several years ago! - Diane


Natalie Aguirre said...

I'm guilty of writing passive sentences sometimes. Thanks for the tips. I've revising my manuscript now, so I'll definitely use them.

Elizabeth Seckman said...

Thanks for the tips and for a reminder that every was in a story isn't necessarily a bad was.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Passive construction is very helpful when writing mysteries! But it's great to eliminate them when they're not needed. Thanks for the tips, Carolyn!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

One character to use passive voice - that makes sense.

Sandra Cox said...

This sounds absolutely fascinating.

Liz A. said...

I find I use passive voice when I'm trying to hide the subject (or I don't or can't name the person doing the thing). Usually in more academic writing. I definitely need to watch out when doing it while writing fiction.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

I'm glad this was helpful for everyone.

Tonja Drecker said...

Great tips!

Sandra Cox said...

Helpful info.

J Lenni Dorner said...

Good tips.
Looking forward to more posts like this.
It's April, so I'm focused on the #AtoZChallenge.
Proof of Existence, book two in my dark urban fantasy series, is out this month. Very exciting.

J Lenni Dorner (he/him 👨🏽 or 🧑🏽 they/them) ~ Reference& Speculative Fiction Author, OperationAwesome6 Debut Author Interviewer, and Co-host of the #AtoZchallenge