The Dreaded Passive Voice Revisited

Posted May 1, 2019 by Bill Wheelhouse

This was one of the most popular  Tips Of The Week on our site this past year.


Thanks to Ken Keller.  A good chunk of this article came from an INBA Tune In back in the 1990’s (based on the original article mentioning Governor Jim Edgar.)

With Mr. Keller writing about passive voice 20 years ago, we know this is a perennial problem in broadcast and now web writing.  It’s clunky. It’s wordy. Sometimes, it’s silly. I still hear it all the time in newscasts.  Here are a few thoughts from Ken.

“Nothing irks news directors and broadcast writing teachers more than hearing stories written in the dreaded PASSIVE VOICE. Granted, there are times when you really can’t get around it, but where there is a will there is usually a way.  I am often often amazed at how many students look bewildered when I mention using simple declarative sentences in their writing. It all comes down to the basics:  SUBJECT-VERB-OBJECT.

We get into trouble when we put the object before the subject. Listen closely to broadcast news writing from your own shop and even the so-called high-end  pros. The dreaded passive voice creeps in probably more than you think.  How many of us stop to consider whether a sentence we just wrote is active or passive?  When does it work best for the subject of the sentence to do the acting or the subject to be acted upon?

That’s the key. Let the subject do the acting using perfectly good active verbs. Was the suspect arrested by the police or did police arrest the suspect?   Was school attendance low today because many children were bitten by the flu bug or because the flu bug bit many children?  Was the new parking ordinance passed by the city council or did the city council pass the new parking ordinance?

Why do you want to take the time to consider active vs. passive voice?  Consider the following:

  • You use fewer sentences
  • Sentences are easier to read
  • Active verbs give a greater sense of urgency
  • Your stories are easier on the ear
  • Your stories are easier to understand.

… and the list goes on.  Suffice it to say that your writing is crisper and clearer when you strive to use the active voice.

One way to quickly determine whether your sentence is active or passive is whether the verb contains some form of “to be”  If it does it is generally a passive verb.

(Ed note:  This would include phrases “was brought”  “is being” “will be” “passed by”)

Many beginning writers confuse active/passive verbs with present/past tense verbs. Perhaps that’s why we hear sentences–especially lead sentences–like:

A man dies in a one-car wreck south of Carbondale (if he’s already dead by air time, why not use “died?” Even though “died” is past tense it it still a perfectly good active verb.)

I challenge you to review some of your copy and find the places where you can tighten your writing and where changing passive to an active verb can put more snap in your writing”.  KK

Ken makes excellent points in this column.   I told my reporters and students to use the bicycle as guidance.     You never tell someone that  ‘The bike was ridden by John.’   You would say ‘John rode his bike.’   The first is passive & six words.  The second is active & four words.

Keeping your writing skills sharp is an ongoing process, whether you are a beginner or a veteran reporter.