The Passive Voice Monster

Updated: Aug 12


One of the most common problems for writers and editors alike comes in the form of passive voice. Depending on what a writer wants to achieve with their work, whether or not to use the passive voice can change. Those rules are endless, and it’s best to look up by situation or genre which ones may apply when looking over written work. Once you know the rules, you can decide if you’d like to follow them or break them.


Before you can learn how to fix the passive voice, you must understand if you wrote a passive sentence. A quick test for locating the passive form comes from thinking about zombies, according to Rebecca Johnson. “If you can insert ‘by zombies’ after the verb, you have passive voice.”


For example:

Hitler’s head was eaten by zombies.

Okay, now you’ve done the easy part. Next, we’ll change the form back to active.


Zombies ate Hitler’s head.

Much better, right? Let’s try a longer sentence.


It was better the Nazis were thought to have been being eaten by Reptilians instead, or their heads may have been eaten by zombies too as they tried to watch Hitler’s head-eating, which having been seen by the coroner caused his poor head to have been exploded by the ghastly sight into a thousand bits.


How about your head? Still intact? I’m relieved.


Don’t worry. By the end of this article, the above sentence will feel easy-breezy.

Let’s defeat this passive voice monster once and for all as we break down how to avoid passive voice mistakes tense by tense. We’ll also use our grammar guns to take a shot at infinitival or participle passive forms.


Present

The first verb tense we’ll take a look at is the present, which like the other two tenses, has four aspects: simple, perfect, progressive, and perfect progressive. Most don’t have much trouble changing the simple aspect back into active form. Others may feel the perfect or progressive aspect don’t carry many challenges either but will struggle with the perfect progressive, which we use less than the others. Let’s see if Hitler and zombies can help us take a look at all four.


Present Simple

Hitler’s head is eaten by zombies.

Zombies eat Hitler’s head.

Present Progressive

Hitler’s head is being eaten by zombies.

Zombies are eating Hitler’s head.

Present Perfect

Hitler’s head has been eaten by zombies.

Zombies have eaten Hitler’s head.

Present Perfect Progressive

Hitler’s head has been being eaten by zombies.

Zombies have been eating Hitler’s head.

Did Hitler and zombies help? (Things I never thought I’d write.) Great, let’s zoom through the past and future.


Past

Past Simple

Hitler’s head was eaten by zombies.

Zombies ate Hitler’s head.

Past Progressive

Hitler’s head was being eaten by zombies.

Zombies were eating Hitler’s head.

Past Perfect

Hitler’s head had been eaten by zombies.

Zombies had eaten Hitler’s head.

Past Perfect Progressive

Hitler’s head had been being eaten by zombies.

Zombies had been eating Hitler’s head.


Future

Future Simple

Hitler’s head will be eaten by zombies.

Zombies will eat Hitler’s head.

Future Progressive

Hitler’s head will be being eaten by zombies.

Zombies will be eating Hitler’s head.

Future Perfect

Hitler’s head will have been eaten by zombies.

Zombies will have eaten Hitler’s head.

Future Perfect Progressive:

Hitler’s head will have been being eaten by zombies.

Zombies will have been eating Hitler’s head.

Okay, we’ve covered all three tenses and their aspects. “Used to,” which some grammarians consider another tense, has a separate passive form. Luckily, it only has one form and no aspects.


Used to

Hitler’s head used to be eaten by zombies.

Zombies used to eat Hitler’s head.

Now we’re done with all tenses. The passive form of “used to” helps us jump right into infinitives, which unluckily has four aspects too.


Infinitives

Simple Infinitive

Hitler’s head seems to be eaten by zombies

Zombies seem to eat Hitler’s head.

Progressive Infinitive

Hitler’s head seems to be being eaten by zombies.

Zombies seem to be eating Hitler’s head.

Perfect Infinitive

Hitler’s head seems to have been eaten by zombies.

Zombies seem to have eaten Hitler’s head.

Perfect Progressive Infinitive

Hitler’s head seems to have been being eaten by zombies.

Zombies seem to have been eating Hitler’s head.

Infinitives are done. Now onto gerunds with only two forms: simple and perfect.


Gerunds

Gerund Simple

Hitler’s head being eaten, the zombies looked satisfied.

Eating Hitler’s head, the zombies looked satisfied.

Gerund Perfect

Hitler’s head having been eaten, the zombies looking satisfied.

Having eaten Hitler’s head, the zombies looked satisfied.

Okay, we’ve learned how to shoot, so let’s practice and take down every clause/passive form from the passive monster sentence bit by bit:


Passive Sentence Target Practice


FIRST CLAUSE

“It was better the Nazis were thought”: [Past simple passive “were thought” becomes “thought”].

“to have been being eaten by Reptilians instead,”: [A perfect progressive infinitive “to have been being eaten” becomes “to have been eating”].

[Now find the subjects and rearrange the clause].

“It was better people thought the Reptilians to have been eating Nazis,”

SECOND CLAUSE

“or their heads may have been eaten by zombies too as they tried to watch Hitler’s head-eating,”: [Present perfect passive “have been eaten” becomes “have eaten”].

[Put the subject “zombies” in the correct spot].

“zombies may have eaten their heads too as they tried to watch Hitler’s head-eating,”

.

LAST CLAUSE

“which having been seen”: [Perfect gerund passive “having been seen” becomes “having seen”].

“by the coroner caused his poor head to have been exploded by the ghastly sight into a thousand bits.”: [Perfect infinitive passive “to have been exploded” becomes “to have exploded”]

[Rearrange the subjects into their proper place and BAM!]

Passive sentence monster slain to create this passive-less sentence.

It was better people thought the Reptilians to have been eating Nazis, or zombies may have eaten their heads too as they tried to watch Hitler’s head-eating, which the coroner having seen the ghastly sight caused his poor head to have exploded into a thousand bits.

All right, we slew the passive voice monster, but many more may appear any second in your nightmares. The best thing to do is a simulation, and get into the head of our enemy. Down in the comments below, go ahead and create your own passive voice nightmares, and then slay them with your solution. But, don’t forget: rules are meant to be broken.

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