Tag Archives: passive verbs

Give Your Prose Muscle with Active Verbs

Ah, the good old helping verb is. Is and all of its forms get so overused, don’t you think? And worse, they slum around in your writing, creeping in unbeknownst to you and slowing the prose down.

Let’s take a look at a passage overflowing with is forms, all of which I’ve bolded.

After he had splashed some water on his face – after he had combed his damp hair and changed into his spare shirt – then the doctor was going to face her parents. He was wondering what he would say to them. Hollinsgsead had no idea why the Procedure had failed. Sometimes he was merely wrong about a child’s being demon-possessed, but in such cases God was always respectful of his earnestness. Never was he an outright failure as he was with the Campbell girl. Never was a demon so disrespectful of his authority.

–“The Righteous Shall Inherit the Kingdom of the Blind,” by Kate Watts

Kind of mealy-mouthed, yes? That’s because I resorted to words such as “was going,” “was wondering,” “was respectful.” Easy enough to do, and not something you should worry about in the draft stage of composition, but definitely something to smooth out when you edit.

Words such as “was,” “being,” and “has been” are passive verbs. They have a use: sometimes passive verbs indicate that the subject is being acted upon instead of doing the acting. But generally, passive verbs just make noise in between your subject and the verb. Not only do passive verbs serve no real purpose, but their use makes your prose as limp as a switched-off automaton.

Let’s see, for example, how the above passage might read if I eliminated the passive forms sprinkled throughout.

After he had splashed some water on his face – after he had combed his damp hair and changed into his spare shirt – then the doctor had to face her parents, and he wondered what he would say to them. Hollingsead had no idea why the Procedure had failed. Sometimes he merely erred in his judgment of demon possession, but in such cases God always respected his earnestness. Never had he outright failed as he had with the Campbell girl. Never had a demon shown such disrespect to his authority.

Much better, right? No slumping. You can picture the doctor standing upright, going about his nefarious business. Just straighten up the verbiage, and the result is much livelier prose!