How to Find and Rewrite Instances of Passive Voice in Your Microsoft Word Documents

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Passive speech is awkward and sometimes difficult to understand. Let Word find your passive voice content and help you fix it.

Image: Swellphotography/Adobe Stock

You probably learned passive and active voice during primary school grammar, like me. In grammatical terms, the active voice has an explicit subject, while the subject of the passive voice receives the action of the verb. We often speak in the passive voice, but you should use the active voice when writing whenever possible. The active voice has the advantage of being more succinct and understood.

Whether you’re writing a business letter, technical documentation, or the Great American Novel, use the 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 64-bit Windows 10 system, but you can use an older version. However, Word’s editor is only available in Microsoft 365 and Word for the web. Editor is also available as a browser extension for Edge and Chrome. There is no demo file; you won’t need it.

What is the passive voice?

Finding a passive voice in your writing is probably easier than writing a simple passive voice definition without using the passive voice! In passive voice cases, the auxiliary verb to 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 the passive voice in your writing is to run a search task for the words be and to be. It won’t find everything, but it’s a good start.

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That’s it for the grammar lesson. What matters most is that the active voice is engaging and, well, active. The passive voice is often awkward and difficult to understand. Now let’s see a quick example of both:

Humans are destroying the rainforest.

The rainforest is being destroyed by humans.

After reading the short definition of passive voice above, you should be able to spot it easily in the second sentence – “to be destroyed” being the clue. When we write, we often switch to the passive voice without even realizing it, and the real hurdle is this: humans have trouble checking their own work. It is not a question of intelligence, but rather of our physiology. Our brain knows what we meant and when checking out 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 spot on our own. That’s 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 the Passive Voice

If you use Microsoft 365, you have a new editing feature — Editor. This is a spell checker update. To access it, press F7, as you would in previous versions to trigger the spellcheck. The editor is on the Home tab of Word for the web.

The editor opens on a first reading. The 80% rating isn’t horrible, but watch what happens when I change Format Writing to Casual (Figure A).

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Figure A

Image: Susan Harkins/TechRepublic. Run Microsoft 365’s new Word editor.

To see what’s left to fix, click Clarity – it lists a problem. This will select the passive phrase shown in Figure B.

Editor not only highlights the phrase, but also provides an active voice alternative. Click on the correction to replace the passive phrase with the editor’s active phrase. The editor will continue to highlight passive sentences until you have corrected them all.

You can always click the Ignore option once if the passive phrase is the best way to say something – it rarely is, but you have that option.

Figure B

Image: Susan Harkins/TechRepublic. Word Editor finds passive voices.

Let Editor help you improve your writing by finding passive speech phrases. But you might be wondering how he knows how to check the passive voice.

How to Enable Passive Voice Search in Word

If Editor cannot find the passive voice, it is possible that this option is disabled in your copy of Word. Proceed as follows to check this option:

  1. Click on the File tab and choose Options.
  2. Click Verification in the left pane.
  3. In the Spelling and grammar correction in Word section, find the Writing Styles drop-down list shown in Figure C.
  4. Choose Grammar, then click Settings.
  5. In the resulting dialog, choose Grammar Settings from the Writing Style drop-down list (this shouldn’t be necessary).
  6. In the Clarity section, check Passive voice and Passive voice with unknown action (Figure D).
  7. Click OK twice.

Figure C

Image: Susan Harkins/TechRepublic. Click the Writing Styles drop-down menu and choose Grammar.

Figure D

Image: Susan Harkins/TechRepublic. Enable both passive voice options.

Once you enable passive voice settings, Word displays a thin blue wavy line below the passive voice, making them easier to spot and correct immediately.

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The editor seems a little slow on occasion. If you click an option and nothing happens, close it and try again.


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