why use active verbs instead of passive

Why Use Active Verbs Instead of Passive?

This is part of a series by editor Barbara McNichol to provide tips that help you write like a pro.

You’ve probably been urged to use “active” verbs when you write but do you know why? Because sentences written with active verbs:

  • Clearly spell out the action being performed and who is doing it.
  • Convey the ideas more quickly and directly than passive sentences.
  • Frequently require fewer words than passive sentences when space is limited.

Two clues help you identify “passive” use in a sentence: 1) the word “by” and 2) variations of the verb “to be.”

Passive—“Employees are seen by their managers as responsive and enthusiastic.”
Active—“Managers see their employees as responsive and enthusiastic.”

In addition, passive sentences can foster weasel-like communication and hide who’s responsible for an action and, in this way, evade accountability rather than declare it. For example, if a contract states “the rules for the homeowners will be enforced” but doesn’t note who will enforce those rules, what results? Ambiguity. Confusion. Inaction.

In an active sentence, someone (subject) does something (verb) to someone/something (object). Example: The employees (subject) implement (verb) the new strategy (object). Who’s doing the implementing? The employees. Thus, it’s clear who’s accountable for the action.

Your challenge: Use the clues here to notice passive sentences and change them to active.


When you know how to write with precision and accuracy, your professional reputation builds and your career can soar.  Barbara McNichol is passionate about helping business professionals add power to their pen. To assist in this mission, she has created a word choice guide Word Trippers: The Ultimate Source for Choosing the Right Word When It Really Matters with details at www.WordTrippers.com. 

Today’s Word Tripper:

Compliment, complement “Compliment” means to praise while “complement” means to complete or enhance something. (Note: the words “complete” and “complement” both use the letter “e”) “The wine steward deserves many compliments. The wine complements the food extremely well.”

Related posts from Barbara:

Barbara McNichol, Word TrippersBarbara McNichol works with business professionals to provide expert editing of nonfiction books and help them improve their writing skills. Over the past 22 years, she has placed more than 320 books on her editing “trophy shelf.”

On a crusade to boost the quality of business writing, she offers a monthly ezine Add Power to Your Pen as well as a WordShop on Business Writing Essentials and her word choice guide Word Trippers: Your Ultimate Source for Choosing the Perfect Word When It Really Matters. Because she keeps tripping over more Word Trippers (pairs such as “except vs. accept” that get mixed up), she produces Word Tripper of the Week ezine (www.wordtrippers.com)

You can reach Barbara at 520-615-7910 or [email protected] and connect on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Join the conversation below, ask Barbara your questions and participate in our April blog-a-thon in honor of administrative professionals – just leave your comment to get started.



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14 thoughts on “Why Use Active Verbs Instead of Passive?”

  1. Gloria von Gesslein

    These little differences in the choice of words does make a huge difference in communicating clearly and driving your point home. I was also surprised to recently learn at how writing rules have changed, too. For instances, I was taught to put 2 spaces between sentences. No more. That shows you’re outdated.

  2. Using active verbs not only increases clarity, it can also make your writing more compelling and interesting. When I started my career as secretary for the sports department of a major daily newspaper, the feature columnist confided in me that one of the”secrets” to his success was picking the right verb to use in a sentence. It makes all the difference.

  3. I hadn’t thought about passive and active when writing. Will be more mindful when sending emails requesting and notifying someone of something. I’ve recently been tasked with taking minutes, so being an active writer is very helpful.

  4. This is very helpful. During the day when typing e-mails to individuals I’ll always go back through and try to sound more professional while using big words. This is hard for me since I don’t have a big vocabulary. Thanks again for the article!

    1. There are easy ways to build a vocabulary. Find a “Word of the Day” site and learn one new word every day. (I try to integrate the current word and the word from the day before in conversation throughout the day – sometimes, that really is not an option, but I try.) Take full advantage of the Thesaurus feature of your programs to research alternate word. I believe, if you try this, you will find you are better versed than you thought!

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