How Zombies Can Help You Avoid Passive Voice: A 20-Minute Writing Exercise -->

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How Zombies Can Help You Avoid Passive Voice: A 20-Minute Writing Exercise

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While writing a paper or dissertation, you may have heard from your instructor, “Don’t use passive voice!”

What is passive voice? I’ll give the technical and then layperson’s definition, and I’ll show you an easy and memorable trick to help you identify passive voice in your own writing.


How Zombies Can Help You Avoid Passive Voice

Technical definition of passive voice:
  • any form of writing that places the object being acted upon before the initiator of the action or makes it unclear as to who the initiator of the action is.


Layperson’s definition of passive voice:
  • Writing “The ball was hit” rather than “John hit the ball.”


As my colleague Rachel explained in her blog post on passive voice, spotting passive voice in your own writing is as easy as looking for those “be” words (“be given,” “be described,” etc.) followed by a verb in past tense. Or, if you are writing in the past tense, look for those “was” words (“was given,” “was described,” etc.). You can also program Microsoft Word to identify passive voice automatically, but we recommend this method only as a partial solution and instead encourage you to rely on your own eye and ear.

Identifying passive voice is just the beginning, however—next, you'll convert the language to active voice. Here is one writing activity, inspired by a single tweet and used by writing teachers around the world, that will help you identify passive voice and convert it to active voice.

Step 1: Identify the verb

Identify the verb (action word). Here are three examples with the verb highlighted:

Mistakes were made.
In this case, the verb (action word) is “made.”

Methods for performing improved security checks at baseball stadiums will be explored.
In this case, the verb is “explore.”

Page and Olson (2014) described electronic health records as less user-friendly for older, less tech-savvy nurses.
In this case, the verb is “described.”

Step 2: Use "by zombies"

If you can insert the phrase, “by zombies” after the verb you identified, it’s a good indicator that you have written the sentence in passive voice. To show what I mean, I will add this phrase to the two examples from above:

Mistakes were made by zombies.

Methods for performing improved security checks at baseball stadiums will be explored by zombies.

Page and Olson (2014) described by zombies electronic health records as less user-friendly for older, less tech-savvy nurses.

In the above cases, the phrase “by zombies” works grammatically when placed in the first two sentences, but not in the third. The reason is simple: the third sentence already has “Page and Olson” as the doers of the action, otherwise known as the sentence’s subjects.

Step 3: Identify the "doer"

In the sentence(s) with passive voice, identify the subject (doer of the action) and place it at the beginning of the sentence.

For example:
Mistakes were made.
Who or what made mistakes?
o   Nurses with limited technological savvy.

Methods for performing improved security checks at baseball stadiums will be explored.
Who or what will explore these methods?
o   “I” (the author) will!

So, to convert these two sentences to active voice, simply write:

Nurses with limited technological savvy made mistakes.
This sentence has active voice since it clearly identifies who did the action.

I will explore methods for performing improved security checks at baseball stadiums.
This sentence also has active voice since it clearly identifies who will do the action. Note that APA allows scholars to use the first person (“I,” “me,” and “my”) in academic writing; for more information, see the Writing Center’s Point of View webpage.

Put it into practice

Take your current piece of writing, and spend 20 minutes going through the following steps. First, look for constructions of be or was followed by a verb in past tense. Then,

1. Identify the verb
2. Use the "by zombies" trick
3. Identify the doer 

With practice, this above writing activity will help you write in active voice out of habit, rather than out of requirement from your instructor. 

Nik Nadeau author image





Nikolas Nadeau is a Writing Center writing instructor and co-host of the WriteCast podcast. Nik currently lives in Boston where he enjoys reading, speed skating, and writing about Asian American topics.


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