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Passive Voice Words, Highlighting them in Word

My very patient friend, Minerva Zimmerman, is working with me to revise, or as I like to say, unfuck a short story I’m working on. Her and the other alpha readers I handed the story to complained about my passive voice. This amuses me, because I catch the passive voice in others’ work, but not as much in my own until after it’s handed back to me.

(Oh, and if you like amusing fiction about how dangerous being in a museum is, her current series is up your alley.)

Passive Voice Words

She collected some passive voice words from some different sites, as her list to check off when she’s revising. She sent me this note:

They are huge indicators of passive voice and are like the tofu of verbs. A good rule is to try limit your use of them to only where they need to be, you need a strong sauce around them to flavor their tofu nature. If you can use a stronger tasting verb, always use one.

And the list of tofu verbs she’s gathered:

be being been am is
are was were been has
have had do did does
can could shall should will
would might must may

(Edit: Yes, it’s been commented that there’s more to passive voice than your verb. We should all know that. There is still merit in highlighting your to-be and similar verbs in drafts, to see how excessive you may be using them.)

The Time and Place for Passive Voice

Note that passive voice is generally weak construction, but is not in and of itself grammatically incorrect. Here’s a great site covering that.

Macro to Automatically Highlighting Them in Word

Minerva went through and manually highlighted a number of problem words, which made me think: wait, I remember some VBA from back when I was forced to deal with that. (I was, long ago, a ASP/VBScript guy for hire. And occasionally dealt with VBA.) I could write a macro for this!

For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, just read it as “blah blah blah hey a macro to highlight stuff!”

There’s one macro for highlighting all of the words I listed above, called HighlightPassiveVoiceMacro. There’s another that removes all the highlighting from the document, DehighlightMacro. Note that I’m running Word for Mac 2011. Your mileage may vary.

Now, this will highlight all of them, including those that aren’t actually passive voice. Still, I see that as a feature; that also points out other, related opportunities to clean & tighten language. There’s more to shitty writing than just passive voice.

Due to time constraints, I’ll have to leave it as an exercise to the reader to figure out how to add macros to your document, and how to have them persist when saving. (Seriously, five minutes playing around and I couldn’t remember that last part.) If you don’t know how and want to learn, start by googling “making a word macro”.

Warning: as with all things in life, no warranty is implied. You should make a copy of your file before screwing with it. Unless you love that moment of agony as you discover a drastic error cannot be undone.

Sub HighlightPassiveVoiceMacro()
	HighlightPassiveVoiceWord ("be")
	HighlightPassiveVoiceWord ("being")
	HighlightPassiveVoiceWord ("been")
	HighlightPassiveVoiceWord ("am")
	HighlightPassiveVoiceWord ("is")
	HighlightPassiveVoiceWord ("are")
	HighlightPassiveVoiceWord ("was")
	HighlightPassiveVoiceWord ("were")
	HighlightPassiveVoiceWord ("been")
	HighlightPassiveVoiceWord ("has")
	HighlightPassiveVoiceWord ("have")
	HighlightPassiveVoiceWord ("had")
	HighlightPassiveVoiceWord ("do")
	HighlightPassiveVoiceWord ("did")
	HighlightPassiveVoiceWord ("does")
	HighlightPassiveVoiceWord ("can")
	HighlightPassiveVoiceWord ("could")
	HighlightPassiveVoiceWord ("shall")
	HighlightPassiveVoiceWord ("should")
	HighlightPassiveVoiceWord ("will")
	HighlightPassiveVoiceWord ("would")
	HighlightPassiveVoiceWord ("might")
	HighlightPassiveVoiceWord ("must")
	HighlightPassiveVoiceWord ("may")
End Sub

Sub HighlightPassiveVoiceWord(sWord)
	Selection.Find.ClearFormatting
	Selection.Find.Replacement.ClearFormatting
	Selection.Find.Replacement.Highlight = True
	With Selection.Find
		.Text = sWord
		.Replacement.Text = ""
		.Forward = True
		.Wrap = wdFindContinue
		.Format = True
		.MatchCase = False
		.MatchWholeWord = True
		.MatchWildcards = False
		.MatchSoundsLike = False
		.MatchAllWordForms = False
	End With
	Selection.Find.Execute Replace:=wdReplaceAll
End Sub

Sub DehighlightMacro()
	ActiveDocument.Range.HighlightColorIndex = wdNoHighlight
End Sub

What I leave to other VBA geeks out there: making this more accessible to folks, making a version that lets you quickly highlight what you want, whatever other tools you feel like coming up with. Feel free to post links to ‘em in the comments!

– Ryan

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16 Responses to Passive Voice Words, Highlighting them in Word

  1. Marc Majcher says:

    That’s pretty sweet. Reminds me of this set of scripts (for the more unix scripty inclined) that call out passive voice and other weasel wordy stuff:

    http://matt.might.net/articles/shell-scripts-for-passive-voice-weasel-words-duplicates/

  2. Struggling with the passive voice is the hardest thing for me to deal with when writing. I’m a pharmaceutical chemist by trade and a good deal of industry science is written in the passive voice. “The samples were analyzed… the data are shown… the results are indicative of… the analyst was flogged…” I am bookmarking this site so I remember to use the macro next time I write something not related to my job.

  3. I struggle with passive voice a lot. I used the scripts Marc posted to while I was in the middle of essay writing for school. That list is a bit more extensive, but I like your method of having it built right into Word. If I feel inspired over the next few months I might try to put them together…

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Hmm.

      You know, could also change the highlight color partway through the macro, so that different sorts of words had different highlighting.

      Now I’m thinking.

      – Ryan

  4. Kit says:

    Time for Speaking as a Linguist, with Kit La Touche.

    One thing that we-as-linguists see a lot is misplaced, poorly-understood and poorly-executed vilification of and crusades against passive voice. The number of times I’ve heard someone give an example of “passive voice” that was utterly wrong and not an example of it at all, in the midst of a rant against it—let me tell you! And the number of times I’ve heard people exhort writers to never use it. It’s infuriating in the same way that pop-psychology bothers psychological professionals—it’s like seeing your tools misused in inexpert hands.

    But this, this is the right thing. Describing it as tofu-y is just right. It’s not that the passive voice is somehow wrong, it’s just stylistically usually the wrong choice. Love it.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Kit,

      Yeah. There are places where it’s useful and the right tool, but that should be the intent rather than accident. (Whether the intent with writing or the intent with revising and leaving it.) Accidental passive voice that would read better otherwise should be revised, just as anything that was hastily written in order to just get it done should be revised.

      It confuses new writers because of how some teachers teach past & past perfect tense, and the focus in the passive voice crusade of the verb form rather than where the subject is. Etc. etc.

      I will say that I left quite a bit highlighted in the document, and a good amount that I did chance wasn’t passive voice, but just repeated words or other crappy construction that needed to be cleaned up.

      – Ryan

    • Kit says:

      Just to clarify, we’re agreeing here.

      I think it’d be really great if there were some discussion of the difference between “subject” and “agent”, and how the passive voice relates to changing the typical relationship between those two roles. I think that might help people a lot with passive voice recognition. But then again, I’m thinking about freshman linguistics papers, so.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      \m/

      Now I’m pondering the psychological state involved when constructing such a sentence. But that’s (a) well outside my knowledge of psychology and (b) well outside the scope here.

      – Ryan

  5. Ryan Macklin says:

    A friend pointed out that this won’t work with Word 2007:
    http://www.macworld.com/article/1054320/microsoft.html

    – Ryan

  6. Jason Pitre says:

    For the readers: the is existing functionality for finding passive voice in word 2007. Under the spell check => advanced? you can set it to look for “style and grammar” rather than merely “grammar.” This will allow you to set the grammer check to automatically flag passive voice.
    /cellphone comment

  7. Rich says:

    Is errant pedantry welcome, or am I just going to be annoying if I engage in it? I’m going to go ahead with it since this is a grammar post. If you can’t get pedantic in a grammar post, where can you, right?

    (If this is basically unwelcome, just tell me to piss off and I’ll drop it, btw.)

    This list of words doesn’t have much to do with the passive voice. It’s just a list of auxiliaries (“helping verbs”):

    BE: am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been
    HAVE: has, had, have

    Some of these helping verbs are modals:
    may/might, can/could, shall/should, will/would, must

    Words can’t be passive voice — the passive voice is a construction made by combining a form of the verb BE with the past participle form of a lexical verb. A minimum of two words are required to construct a passive.

    So this list of verbs may sound like “tofu,” but there’s nothing passive about them in a grammatical sense. From this list, only the forms of BE are even necessary to construct a passive voice clause, and not every instance of BE in discourse is used in a passive construction. Indeed, most of the time, BE is used for other reasons. The modal verbs have nothing to do with the passive voice at all. They signal different levels of obligation, permission, probability, possibility, etc., which maybe sounds weak (?) in some contexts, but is not related to the grammatical passive.

    There are some verbs that are usually found in the passive (the blog English, Jack has a list here), but they’re a bit of a different animal — those verbs would often sound weird if you didn’t use the passive with them, so they’re probably not what you’re worried about here.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Is errant pedantry welcome, or am I just going to be annoying if I engage in it?

      *sigh* If you have to ask, then you’re choosing to play a status game rather than be friendly with your information. But since you have some good stuff here, I’m accepting the comment. Normally I kill troll comments with a quickness.

      That said, the tool is still useful it pointing out places where a sentence could use a second glance.

      – Ryan

  8. Rich says:

    *sigh* If you have to ask, then you’re choosing to play a status game rather than be friendly with your information. But since you have some good stuff here, I’m accepting the comment. Normally I kill troll comments with a quickness.

    Fair enough. Glad the content was useful.

  9. Passive Struggler says:

    A simpler way to get passive voice highlighted in Word 2011 is to select the FORMAL style of review in the grammar checker, rather than Standard. This option can be found in the Grammar section of the Spelling & Grammar pane of Word preferences. This enables the green squiggly lines I was expecting to see!

    I don’t know if this is also true in other versions of Word these days.

    Good luck all!

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Thanks! That was pointed out above with 2007, but I haven’t tried it yet.

      There is still fruit in tweaking this macro to highlight other problems, especially consistent problems an individual writer has (certain words being reused, etc.)

      – Ryan