Friday, September 17, 2010

Scratch Those Passive Verbs

We all use many passive verbs in everyday conversation. Consider how many times you include the words was, is, were or some variation of them. We do it subconsciously as method of economizing our speech. Those words are short and we know the point of what we’re saying lies in the words that surround those bland verbs.

But as writers, we need to find verbs that show the reader something, verbs that bring out sensory details. Using too many passive verbs is the mark of a new writer. I profess to guilt in that department, too, when I first started writing.

Which of the following sentences are more interesting? Which ones give a picture to the reader?

  1. She is sad.
  2. Sadness engulfed her.

  1. We went to the beach.
  2. We motored to the beach.

  1. We were hot in the sun.
  2.  We roasted in the blazing sun.

  1. Alice turned around, her skirt moved, too.
  2. Alice twirled until her skirt billowed.

The B sentences all bring a mental picture to mind and allow the reader to get into the scene far better than those passive verbs in the A sentences. In the final set, A has semi-active verbs, what we might call weak verbs. Again, the ones used in B are far more interesting and give a more vivid picture.

When you finish the first draft of a story or essay, look through it and mark the passive verbs. Then try to find active verbs to replace them. Use a thesaurus if you need some help. Read your work from beginning to end, and you’ll see how much stronger and more interesting it sounds. Work on using active verbs whenever possible


  1. This is something I really need to work on. Thanks!

  2. I often hate to admit it, but I'm there. Sounds like a fun newspaper.