You probably learned about passive and active voice during grade school grammar as I did. In grammatical terms, active voice has an explicit subject, while the passive voice subject receives the action of the verb. We often speak in passive voice, but you should use active voice when writing whenever possible. Active voice has the advantage of being more succinct and understood.
Regardless of whether you’re writing a business letter, technical documentation, or the great American novel, use active voice unless you have a specific reason not to. In this tutorial, I’ll show you how Word finds instances of passive voice in your Word documents and helps you rewrite them as active.
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I’m using Microsoft 365 on a Windows 10 64-bit system, but you can use an earlier version. However, Word’s Editor is available only in Microsoft 365 and Word for the web. Editor is also available as a browser extension for Edge and Chrome. There’s no demonstration file; you won’t need one.
What is passive voice?
Finding passive voice in your writing is probably easier than writing a simple definition for passive voice without using passive voice! In instances of passive voice, the auxiliary verb be in some form, which includes are, and sometimes is, always precedes the verb. An auxiliary verb is a verb used to form tense and mood with other verbs. One of the easiest ways to catch passive voice in your writing is to run a find task for the words be and being. It won’t find everything, but it is a good start.
That’s it for the grammar lesson. What matters the most is that active voice is engaging and, well, active. Passive voice is often awkward and hard to understand. Now let’s look at a quick example of both:
Humans are destroying the rain forest.
The rain forest is being destroyed by humans.
After reading the short definition of passive voice above, you should be able to easily detect it in the second sentence — “being destroyed” being the clue. When writing, we often slip into passive voice without even realizing it, and the real obstacle is this: Humans have difficulty proofing their own work. It’s not a question of intelligence, but rather our physiology. Our brains know what we meant to say and when proofing, our brain tends to read what we meant rather than what we wrote. Most of us need a second pair of eyes to catch mistakes we can’t catch ourselves. This is why I have an editor, even though I’ve been writing most of my adult life.
Now let’s learn how to detect passive voice when writing in Word.
How to use Word to find passive voice
If using Microsoft 365, you have a new editing feature — Editor. It’s an upgrade to spell check. To access it, press F7, just as you would in earlier versions to trigger spell check. Editor is on the Home tab in Word for the web.
Editor opens with a first reading. The 80% grade isn’t horrible, but watch what happens when I change Format Writing to Casual (Figure A).
To see what’s left to fix, click Clarity — it lists one issue. Doing so will select the passive sentence shown in Figure B.
Not only does Editor highlight the sentence, but it also offers an active voice alternative. Click the correction to replace the passive sentence with Editor’s active sentence. Editor will continue to highlight passive sentences until you have corrected them all.
You can always click the Ignore Once option if the passive sentence is the best way to say something — it rarely is, but you do have that option.
Let Editor help you improve your writing by finding passive voice sentences. But you might be wondering how it knows to check for passive voice.
How to enable the search for passive voice in Word
If Editor isn’t finding passive voice, it’s possible that this option is disabled in your copy of Word. Do the following to check this option:
- Click the File tab and choose Options.
- Click Proofing in the left pane.
- In the Correcting Spelling and Grammar in Word section, look for the Writing Styles dropdown shown in Figure C.
- Choose Grammar and then click Settings.
- In the resulting dialog, choose Grammar Settings from the Writing Style dropdown (it shouldn’t be necessary).
- In the Clarity section, check both Passive Voice and Passive Voice with Unknown Action (Figure D).
- Click OK twice.
Once you enable the passive voice settings, Word will display a thin blue squiggly line under passive voice making them easier to spot and fix immediately.
Editor seems a bit slow on occasion. If you click an option and nothing happens, close it and try again.