Less Than Five Percent

By Virginia Parker Staat

“I want to see the thirst inside the syllables. I want to touch the fire in the sound: I want to feel the darkness of the cry. I want words as rough as virgin rocks.” – Pablo Neruda, Verb

Passive verbs continue to haunt many writers. They remain terribly easy to write yet offer so little to our stories. Years ago one of my professors gave me a rule that I still use today. He insisted that good writing should contain less than five percent passive verbs. He believed this fervently. If he was in a particularly foul mood, he returned graded papers with each passive verb circled in red ink.

In school we learned to distinguish the difference between active and passive verbs by conjugating sentences. The active voice is conjugated as subject>verb>object (I hit the ball), while the passive voice is conjugated as object>verb>subject (The ball was hit by me). But who conjugates sentences anymore?

While a variety of grammar rules apply when determining the passive voice, a good clue to keep in your pocket is to know that passive sentences always include an auxiliary form of the verb to be (such as is, am, are, were, was, had, have, and been) before the action verb. Let’s look at the difference between three passive and active verbs and how they might affect a story. Please consider the following sentences:

The man had knelt to the child’s level before he spoke. (Passive, weak)
The man squatted to the child’s level before he spoke. (Action, good)
The man hunkered down to the child’s level before he spoke. (Action, better)

In the first sentence we see the passive verb combination had knelt. The entire sentence feels pretty mundane and offers little to spark our reader’s imagination. In the second sentence, our subject (the man) is acting on the verb squat. The active verb works well, giving our reader essential action, detail, and information. The verb hunker, however, is what I consider to be a super action verb. As a long-time lover of words, to me, hunker feels tinged with emotion. With hunker, I can visualize a tall, lanky man folding himself up like a Swiss army knife just to look this child directly in the eye.

These three examples offer the reason why action verbs are critical to our writing. Action verbs catapult our characters right off the page and directly into the mind’s eye of our reader. Those gremlin passive verbs remain dangerous because they only cause our readers to yawn.

14 Readability statistics P5Modern word processing software easily assists a writer in knowing the percentage of passive verbs written in any given document. For example, after running the Spelling and Grammar function in Microsoft© Word (located under the Tools navigation bar), a box appears showing readability statistics, including the percentage of passive verbs.

I invite you to test your writing for its percentage of passive verbs. I also encourage you to keep a list of super action verbs to incorporate into your writing during final edits. If our manuscripts are laced with super action verbs and contain less than five percent passive verbs, surely the vibrancy of our written work will trigger a connection to our reader’s five senses so that they may fully enter our stories and make them come alive.