Anonymous asked: my teacher keeps telling me that my writing is weak. she says i use too many was and is in my sentences b/c they are watred down and boring. how do i fix this?

What we think you’re describing is passive voice, and most writers (and teachers) would advise you to run and hide.

We wrote another article touching on passive voice called Passive Makes Perfect that may interest you, but we will also cover passive voice here.

So here’s the definition of passive voice:

Passive Voice (n): The voice used to indicate that the grammatical subject of the verb is the recipient (not the source) of the action denoted by the verb; “‘The ball was thrown by the boy’ uses the passive voice”; “‘The ball was thrown’ is an abbreviated passive”.

So, passive voice…

Generally, you’ll want to change passive voice over to active voice, and it’s a pretty quick fix. Observe:

  1. Passive Voice: I was turned blue by the magician.
    Now what?: Make the subject (“I”) into the object (change to “me”), and the object (“the magician”) in the prepositional phrase (“by the magician”) into the subject. Change the verb phrase from auxiliary + past participle (“was turned”) into simple past tense (“turned”).
    BOOM! Active Voice: The magician turned me blue.
  2. Passive Voice: Quails were shot by the hunters.
    Now what?: Make the subject (“Quails”) into the object, and the object (“the hunters”) in the prepositional phrase (“by the hunters”) into the subject. Change the verb phrase from auxiliary + past participle (“were shot”) into simple past tense (“shot”).
    BOOM! Active Voice: The hunters shot the quails.
  3. Passive Voice: If any more noise is made, the cops are going to be called!
    Now what?: Don’t panic. There are two clauses in this sentence, an if-clause (subordinate) and a main clause (independent). For each clause, we’re going to do what we were doing in the last two examples. If-clause: Make the subject (“noise”) into the object, and the object (not actually present in the sentence, but it’s contextual) into the subject. Change the verb phrase from auxiliary + past participle (“is made”) into simple present tense (“make”). Main clause: Make the subject (“the cops”) into the object, and the object  (not actually present in the sentence, but it’s contextually “me”) into the subject (“I”). Change the verb phrase from auxiliary + past participle (“are going to be called”) into will-future tense (“will call”).
    BOOM! Active Voice: If you make any more noise, I will call the cops!

Despite some writer’s near-constant poo-pooing of passive voice, there are certainly some legitimate times to use it.

1. Passive voice is often used when the agent (the doer of an action; the subject of an active verb) is obvious, unknown, or unnecessary:
  • Oranges are grown in California.
  • Toyotas are made in Japan. 
  • Her purse was stolen.

2. Passive voice is often used when the agent is known, but the speaker/writer doesn’t want to mention it:

  • She was given bad advice.
  • A mistake has been made.

3. Passive voice is often used when the agent is very general such as people or somebody.

  • English is spoken here. 
  • The door should be locked.

4. Passive voice is often used when the speaker/writer wants to emphasize a result:

  • Several thousand people were killed by the earthquake.

5. Passive voice is often used when the speaker/writer wants to keep the same subject for two or more verbs but this would not be possible if both verbs were the same voice (active or passive).

For example, in a conversation about George, a speaker would probably use sentence a below rather than sentence b (both sentences are correct).

a. George had several interviews before he was hired by a software company.
b. George had several interviews before a software company hired him.

(x)

Still, there are plenty of writers who actively remove passive voice from their writing when they find it. It true, generally, that repeating passive voice throughout your creative writing can wear on your readers’ patience. It can sound “weak” or “watered-down” if over-used.

This is really, really basic, but if you want to get rid of passive voice, reconstruct your sentence so you replace the auxiliary verb + participle with the past, present, or will-future of the participle verb, then switch your subject and object. If that doesn’t fix it, check out these articles for further reading:

Thank you for your question!


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