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Passive Voice Indicators


Passive voice. Just hearing that term conjures images of ninth-grade English class with all its confusing grammar rules. Never fear: AutoCrit is here to help you figure out what passive voice really means, why it’s (usually) bad, and how to avoid it in your manuscript.

In the English language, there are two ways to construct a sentence: active voice and passive voice.

Active voice

In active voice, the subject of the sentence does the action.

For example:

John stole the priceless vase.

John is the subject, and it’s clear he’s the one stealing the vase.

Another example:

The cat sat on the mat.

It’s clear who is doing the action (the cat).

Passive voice

In passive voice, the object of the action is made into the subject of the sentence, so it can become confusing who does the action.

For example:

The priceless vase was stolen by John.

Or: 

The mat was sat on by the cat.

Think of that little ditty from the 60s:

“I Heard it Through the Grapevine.”  

In passive voice, it would be:

“It was Heard Through the Grapevine.”

Ack! Nobody can dance to that.

Passive voice is a clunky structure—especially because the part about who or what does the action often gets dropped entirely in passive voice.

For example:

The priceless vase was stolen.

Or:

The mat was sat on.

See how it can get confusing for the reader?

Passive voice often creeps in when we’re being lazy about who or what is performing the action. But readers know it’s lazy, as do publishers and agents. So take the time to turn your passive sentence into an active one. How to do that? Simple: Just ask yourself who's doing the action, and make sure that’s clear in the sentence.

True, identifying passive voice can be tricky. Technically, passive voice is not grammatically incorrect, so your typical word-processing software doesn't always flag it or catch all instances of it.

That’s where AutoCrit comes in.  One way we identify passive voice in your manuscript is to look for some of the classic indicators, such as forms of the verb to be— like had/has and was/were.

For instance:

The vase was stolen.

Or:

The mat was sat on.

Still, not every use of the verb to be automatically means you’re using passive voice—so make sure you review each sentence AutoCrit flags to check for passive voice and consider if it should be changed.

What is meant by the term 'indicator'?

AutoCrit finds words that can and often do indicate passive voice - but can also simply indicate a passive (weak) verb.  You decide whether a change is necessary.

The exception to the rule

Passive voice gets a bad rap, but it can occasionally work in fiction—if you do it right.

Say, for instance, that you want to emphasize the object of the sentence instead of the subject. Passive voice is the answer!

For instance, say you want to put the focus on the priceless vase and make the reader curious about who stole it. Then passive voice is perfect:

The priceless vase was stolen.

Another example of passive voice:

Fifty signatures were needed to get the stop sign installed.

This puts the focus where it belongs--on the signatures rather than on the stop sign, which is less important in this case.

Another way to use passive voice is to show when someone is trying to dodge responsibility:

“Mistakes were made,” Senator Collins said in his speech to the angry voters.

Clearly, the guy is trying to dodge the blame—a move perfectly underscored through the use of passive voice.

Related areas to look for in your manuscript

Passive voice indicates a lack of specificity and clarity, which also occurs when writers show instead of tell and use generic descriptions—so if AutoCrit flags passive voice, check your descriptions.

Generic descriptions are fuzzy, ambiguous words—words like nice, good, uncomfortable, or pretty.  Sometimes known as abstract words, such descriptions make it difficult for the reader to truly “see” the scene.  Abstract words merely tell, when every writer knows the goal is to show.  Check out the Generic Descriptions  and Showing Versus Telling analysis for help spotting and improving those lazy words and descriptions.

The bottom line

In fiction, passive voice is frowned upon because it can be clunky, confusing or unclear to the reader. And good fiction relies on crisp, clear writing – so stay active whenever possible.