How NOT To Write: passive constructions

Why are they called “constructions”?

Because a sentence is something you build, right?  You assemble it with words.  And those words can be active or passive.  But they should be active.  What’s the difference?  This:

PASSIVE:  Mistakes were made by me.
ACTIVE:  I made mistakes.

PASSIVE:  A good time was had by all.
ACTIVE:  We all had a good time.

So.  Active sentences are SHORTER and use fewer syllables.  But that’s not all they have going for them.  They are DIRECT. They are simple.  They are easy to follow.  SUBJECT – VERB – OBJECT.  Easy as pie.

EXAMPLE:  “I ran home.”  In an active construction, you literally start at the beginning with the subject: I.  Then you take a step into the motion: ran.  Then you end at the place where the subject ends: home.  Literally, you move through the sentence in the same way that the person running does.  You move with them, both physically across the page and mentally with the words.  And that sympathy between your eyes and your mind helps close the gap between just reading about something and feeling like you’re there.

Now try this:

“Home was run to by me.”

How wonky is that?  You’ve got the beginning at the end, and the end at the beginning, and all sorts of unnecessary words in between.  You’ve got your object where your subject should be, and you’ve got your subject as part of a prepositional phrase!  OY!

Stay simple unless you have a reason to get crazy.  There are a gazillion ways to riff on the standard S-V-O construction, and plenty of cool things to do with form.  I’m all for a syncopated rhythm in writing.  But not with passive voice.  Be strong!   Be active!  Be totally brazen!  But don’t insult your readers by asking them to do acrobatics across the page.

13 responses to “How NOT To Write: passive constructions”

  1. Suzanne says:

    The passive is very YODA. And I love the story above….even if you don’t think it was very good, it made me smile.

    • It’s totally Yoda! That’s brilliant.
      And I love that story, too. It’s the first novel I ever wrote–about Duran Duran. I was 12. It’s a terrible, terrible, terrible story. And also the best novel ever written…

  2. I love the idea of this “How NOT to Write” series.

    Wonderful explanation of active voice.

  3. brilliant descriptions! i think i fall in between lazy and passive aggressive :)

    i would kill to get my hands on that duran duran novel!! i love that you still have it. i should dig around in my parents attic more often.

  4. David says:

    This post was insightful, entertaining, and useful. It is a great example of why I try and stop by at least once a day.

  5. detes says:

    I never thought about your words this way, but maybe that is one reason why you are so easy to read.

  6. Adam says:

    Well done. As an aspiring writer and a high school English teacher, I feel your pain.

  7. What a great new series to do!
    Thanks for the great advice!

  8. LLH Designs says:

    I love it when you break down the details of your craft. I was beginning to miss those “Writing Wednesday” videos…or whatever day it was!

    Now we’re all going to over-analyze our comments (especially former English majors and recovering Cullinan rule followers). Wink!


  9. Julie says:

    am so jealous not to be featured in the above pages, lol!

  10. Janet says:

    I found a grammar book from 1900–yes, it’s 110 years old and it’s quite magical…a complete “return” to basics, so to speak:

    “Modes of Expressing Ideas.– Ideas may be expressed by symbols, called words or by groups of these, called phrases.

    Words.– Ideas may be grouped into two great classes, those which represent things and those which represent attributes of things; i.e., into substantive ideas, and attributive ideas. But, as has been shown, the mind in thinking detects relations existing between these ideas, hence symbols of relationship are needed.

    A word, then, is a sign, oral or written, of an idea, or of a relation, and words may be logically classified as follows…”

    and it just goes and goes and goes.


  11. Emma Jessop says:

    Oh Wow! I just found your site through our friend at and would love to put a Katherine Center button on my own site if you could please email one to me? I’ll definitely add you to my list of inspiring blog/web sites at

    I’ve only been on here for a minute and already I love, love, love your site! I want to go out and buy all your books and stay and read it ALL. Twice!

    As a permanently knackered and very REAL “mother in training”, living here in grey rainy London, I could really use some of the brightly coloured positive energy you have to offer here today and lots of other days I’m sure! I WILL BE BACK!

    Oh and this article made me smile so much! I guess passive voice is more idiomatic and better suited to speech so those of us who write down what we think/would say, really struggle to rephrase.(although goodness knows, some people, probably myself included, should just learn to say it how it is, as well as write it!)

    Such good advice, maybe my spell check will have less work to do now!

    More, more, more!

    • Yay! Thank you for all your kind words!

      You can find buttons for this site here:

      Thanks very much in advance for wanting to put one up! There are UK versions of my first 2 books–The Bright Side of Disaster and Everyone Is Beautiful. Both are about moms who are totally in the thick of it with motherhood. I hope you like them!