Skill 4.2: Active vs Passive Verbs

  • The verb is the powerhouse of every sentence. If the verbs are dynamic, so is the writing. If the verbs are dull, so is the writing. It’s that simple. I once edited a manuscript where the author claimed to know all about active versus passive verbs, but here are the verbs in his first few sentences: pushed, looked, saw, put, pointed, ran (looked and saw are also markers of a novice—explained later). These are active verbs but boring, overused ones. Your verbs will either sizzle or sag.
  • Where do you find amazing verbs—ones that sizzle? Start with the wonderful book below—I have several copies in my classroom and one on my writing desk at all times. Pages 8-13 provide lists of active verbs. Yes, 6 pages of them! Here is a small sample: praised, rooted, cheered, slapped, scaled, smacked, crushed, bombarded, infiltrated, sniveled, wailed, schlepped, and guzzled. The verbs are categorized by action. For example, under “drank” you’ll find the following: chugged, consumed, downed, gargled, gulped, lapped and more. There are also pages of better verbs for “said,” “fast,” “slow,” and pages on colors (better words for blue or yellow). In addition, you’ll find replacement words for shapes, sensory words (sight, sounds, etc.) and much more! This one, you want for your writing desk. After this—use an online thesaurus. Ignore the fact it says it’s for “Grade 4-8”—it’s for all ages of writers.

 Banish Boring Words Banish Boring Words by Scholastic Teaching Resources, available on Amazon.







  • Some people say to me, “But it’s a quiet scene.” Even a quiet scene should have dynamic active verbs. Here is a scene from Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River”:In the pack, he found a big onion. He sliced it in two and pealed the silky outer skin. Then he cut one half of it into slices and made onion sandwiches. He wrapped them in oiled paper and buttoned them in the outer pocket of his khaki shirt. He turned the skillet upside down on the grill, drank the coffee, sweetened and yellow brown with the condensed milk in it, and tidied up the camp. It was a good camp.
  • A warning on active verbs: do not overdo them. Sometimes the simpler verb is better at a given moment, like “cut” and “made” above. If you input dynamic verbs that are over-the-top, your writing will be silly.

An example of overdone verbs:

Clarence toted a briefcase and sauntered into the bank. He flung open the door, glided over to the teller, slapped his briefcase on the counter and rummaged through papers to discover his checkbook. Once found, he clutched the checkbook, whipped open the cover and penned the name “Sandra Woffington.”

  • Now, let’s define Passive Verbs. Passive verbs have no action—all forms of “to be.” Present tense: is, are. Also avoid “helping verbs”: had, have, has, have been, had; Past Tense: was, were. 
  • When to use Passive verbs:
  1. When your character experiences a loss of control: Jim was thrown to the floor.
  2. To sum up an active paragraph in a simple way. Notice the last sentence in Hemingway’s paragraph: “It was a good camp.” Even “good” is understated. The reader understands that this is an awesome camp because of its simplicity.
  3. Be a master of the craft—use passive verbs sparingly and intentionally.
  • Had (when to use it property) versus “had-itis” (or inflammation of “had.”) Had has a special place in writing. It denotes “long ago” (rather than “recent or simple past”). However, it should only be used once not repeatedly.

Example: Yesterday, I sang a song. Three years ago, I had sung in the school choir.

When using a flashback or otherwise expressing “long ago,” use “had” once, then revert to simple past tense. Example:

Last week, we snorkeled in the waters off of Hawaii. Then years ago, we had also snorkeled there, too, and I still remember the old reef. Barnacles clung to the rusty hull of a shipwreck, neon-bright fish flitted in and out of crevices, and the warm water hugged me like a blue blanket.

Example of what not to do (had-it is): Three years ago, we had taken a grand vacation. The moment we had left the highway, we had tasted the briny air and had felt the tires of our car sag into the soft sand as we had approached the beach house. (Awful–right!).

  • Was-itis is just as bad as had-itis. Get rid of “was” (passive verbs) and dramatically improve your writing.

Example of bad writing: Jim was walking down the street. His briefcase was swinging in his left hand. His eyes were wandering from window to window as he was approaching his office building. Suddenly, his eyes were wide and he was frozen with fright as a car was coming around the corner. Jim dove for cover.Every was here can be taken out easily.

Instead of “was walking”—walked; instead of “was swinging”—swung, etc.

KUDOS: I have to give credit to a man I consider a mentor in my writing—Professor R. Victor at Saddleback College in California. He only allowed us to use one “was” per page of writing (typed-double spaced). We lost points for every “was” after that. I learned to replace “was” with active verbs. Now, I do it naturally. My mind will seek active verbs first. Professor Victor also used a purple pen to grade, saying red was simply too offensive. Thank you, Professor Victor and your purple pen! I pass your lessons on here and in my classroom.

Go on to Skill 4.3:  Action vs Dialogue Tags

Speak Your Mind