Understanding Passive and Active Verbs
All writers have heard passive verbs should be avoided as much as possible and active verbs are fundamental to good writing.
Do you know the difference? Can you find active verbs and passive verbs in your writing? Do you know why active verbs are considered better than passive verbs? Do you know when you should use passive verbs?
Why active verbs are better (most of the time) than passive verbs
Active verbs clearly show who or what is doing something and who or what is responsible. Using active verbs equals writing that is more concise since active verbs require fewer words than using passive verbs. Active verbs make writing flow more smoothly. When using active verbs, your writing also seems to move more quickly.
Passive verbs can create wordiness and are often found in lengthy sentences that may be hard for readers to understand. Sentences written with passive verbs (or in passive construction) can lead to misleading and/or confusing statements. However, passive verbs can be effective when you want to slow down the pace of your writing, focus on a scene, or emphasize an object over a subject.
The most common passive construction happens to be past tense (e.g., I’ve been robbed), which adds to the confusion in identifying passive verbs. The difference is voice has to do with who, while tense has to do with when.
Once you understand the difference between passive verbs and active verbs, you’ll be able to detect passive verbs in your writing and change them to active verbs. You’ll also understand when passive verbs should be used. These understandings will lead to writing that is clear, concise, and effective.
Before looking at the difference between passive verbs and active verbs, let’s quickly review verb types, subjects, and direct objects first.
Verb Types Review
Verbs are words that show action (action verbs) or conditions and relationships (linking verbs). English also has auxiliary (helping) verbs.
Action verbs (not to be confused with active verbs) are verbs that describe something that can be done. Verbs like talk, run, throw, cook, eat, jump, drive, write, and read are all action verbs.
Linking verbs include any form of the verb be (am, are, is, was, were, being, been, etc.) as well as become and seem. Linking verbs connect the subject of the sentence with additional information. Linking verbs perform the function of an equals (or inequality) sign. Linking verbs perform no action and merely state the presence or absence of an existing condition or relationship.
A true linking verb is neither active nor passive. Linking verbs link, or connect, the subject of the verb with other information. Some verbs, however, can act as both linking and action verbs: look, appear, feel, taste, smell, prove, grow, and remain.
Auxiliary verbs (also called helping verbs) are used in forming the tenses, moods, and voices of other verbs. The most common auxiliary verbs are have, be, and do.
Subjects and Direct Objects Review
Subjects are what or who the sentence is about. The subject always includes at least one noun, pronoun, or word functioning as a noun. A subject can even be a group of words. The subject answers the question of “who or what is doing or being this verb.”
Direct objects are the immediate recipients of the action or the item the verb affects. The direct object receives the action performed by the subject and generally answers the question “what.”
Identifying active verbs and passive verbs
Active verbs show the subject of the sentence performing an action.
- The author wrote the book.
- The author hired an editor.
- A cover artist designed a stunning cover for the book.
- After working with an editor and cover artist, the author finally published the book he had spent months writing.
The sentence structure is: subject + verb + direct object
Passive verbs show the subject of the sentence receiving an action.
- The book was written by the author.
- The editor was hired by the author.
- A stunning cover for the book was designed by a cover artist.
- After working with an editor and cover artist, the book the author had spent months writing was finally published.
The sentence structure is: subject + helping verb/verb + doer of action
Tips to help identify passive verbs and active verbs
- Passive verbs always have a direct object.
- The subject isn’t doing anything when a passive verb is used.
- When a passive verb is used, something is done to the subject by someone or something. *Note* “By someone or something” is often implied rather than included in the sentence.
- When an active verb is used, the subject is doing something.
When should passive verbs be used?
- For less confrontational discussions and in customer service situations.
Using active verbs (active voice) can often carry an accusation. Passive verbs (passive voice) communicates the same message but is gentler and is more likely to lead to a conversation rather than a confrontation.
- Example 1 Active: You didn’t get me anything for my birthday.
- Example 1 Passive: I didn’t get anything (from you, implied) for my birthday.
- Example 2 Active: You didn’t pay your bill on time, and we disconnected your cell phone service.
- Example 2 Passive: Your bill wasn’t paid (by you, implied) on time, and your cell phone service has been disconnected (by us, implied).
- When the doer of the action is unknown.
- When it is irrelevant who performed the action.
- When you readers don’t need to know who performed the action&emdash;or you don’t want them to know who performed the action.
- To emphasize an object and/or de-emphasize an unknown subject.
Examples of active and passive verbs in each verb tense
- Simple Present
- Active: Amazon ships books around the world.
- Passive: Books are shipped around the world.
- Present Progressive (or Continuous)
- Active: The cover artist is designing the book cover.
- Passive: The book cover is being designed.
- Simple Past
- Active: The writer finished the book yesterday.
- Passive: The book was finished yesterday.
- Past Progressive (or Continuous)
- Active: The author was making a release date announcement.
- Passive: A release date announcement was being made.
- Active: Amazon will ship paperback books to readers.
- Passive: Paperback backs will be shipped to readers.
- Present Perfect
- Active: Readers have purchased the books from the author.
- Passive: The books have been purchased from the author.
- Past Perfect
- Active: The author had shown readers teasers for the new book for two months.
- Passive: The readers had been shown teasers for the new book for two months.
- Future Perfect
- Active: By next month, the author will have sold 5,000 copies of his new book.
- Passive: By next month, 5,000 copies of his new book will have been sold.
- Active: Readers can read this book for free on Kindle Unlimited.
- Passive: This book can be read for free on Kindle Unlimited.
To learn more about passive voice, check out this article: Passive Voice: Myth vs. Fact
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Verb Tenses Chart
Past, present, and future verb tenses in the simple, progressive (or continuous), perfect, and perfect progressive or continuous verb tense. View examples, usage, and the formula for each verb tense.
This chart has been provided as both an image and an HTML table for visitor accessibility and ease of sharing.
VERB TENSES CHART: IMAGE FORMAT
VERB TENSES CHART: HTML FORMAT
The author ate cheesecake yesterday.
Usage: To indicate a past habit or an action already completed.
The author eats cheesecake every day.
Usage: To express habits or general truth; to indicate a future event on a designated date as part of a plan or arrangement.
The author will eat cheesecake tomorrow.
Formula: will + present tense verb
Usage: To indicate an action, condition, or circumstance which hasn’t taken place yet.
|Progressive (or Continuous)||
The author was eating cheesecake when his friends arrived.
Formula: was/were + (-ing verb form)
Usage: To indicate uncompleted action of the past (with or without time reference); to indicate persistent habits of the past (with continuously, always, forever, etc.)
The author is eating cheesecake right now.
Formula: am/is/are + (-ing verb form)
Usage: To indicate action occurring at the time of speaking; to indicate temporary action which may not be occurring at the time of speaking.
The author will be eating cheesecake when his friends arrive.
Formula: will be + (-ing verb form)
Usage: To indicate what will be going on at some time in the future; to indicate planned future events.
The author had eaten all the cheesecake when his friends arrived.
Formula: had + past participle
Usage: To indicate a completed action of the past that happened before another event took place.
The author has eaten all the cheesecake.
Formula: have/has + past participle
Usage: To indicate past action which is not defined by a time of occurrence; to indicate an action that started in the past and has continued up until now.
The author will have eaten all the cheesecake by the time his friends arrive.
Formula: will have + past participle
Usage: To indicate an action that will be complete before another event takes place.
|Perfect Progressive (or Continuous)||
The author had been eating cheesecake for two hours when his friends arrived.
Formula: had been + (-ing verb form)
Usage: To indicate an action in the past that began before a certain point in the past and continued up until that point in time.
The author has been eating cheesecake for two hours.
Formula: have/has been + (-ing verb form)
Usage: To indicate an action which started at some point in the past and may or may not be complete.
The author will have been eating cheesecake for two hours when his friends arrive.
Formula: will have been + (-ing verb form)
Usage: To indicate an action that will have happened for some time and will not be complete yet at a certain point in the future.