A Neat Trick for Finding and Getting Rid of Passive Verbs in MS Word

I was hunting for a good site today to give advice on Passive vs. Active verbs to another writer and came across this little nugget. The article it’s from is good, but this part is gold! Serious kudos to the author!

“MS-Word has a great and quick method to finding those “to Be” verbs.

The “Reading Highlight” feature is one of the most useful tools in the MS-Word arsenal, but the RH is an especially neat way to check your writing for passive voice use.

What Reading Highlight does is perform a search, but instead of taking you to the next instance of your search terms, it highlights all instances throughout the text.

To use Reading Highlight,

  1. –select a highlight color from the “Home” tab, then hit CTRL-F to bring up a search window.
  2. –Enter your search term or phrase, click the “Reading Highlight” drop-down, and select “Highlight All”.
  3. –Click “Close” and watch your highlights appear.
  4. –To remove the highlighting, re-open the search box, click the “Reading Highlight” drop-down, and select “Clear Highlighting”.
  5. –Again, click “Close” and the highlighting will be gone.

How do you use this to find passive sentences and those “Here is”, “There are”, and “It is” beginning phrases?

Well, we know most passive statements use the verb “to be” in some form or another. So we want to search for “be” in all its variants: is, was, are, am, were, etc.

Open the search dialog (CTRL-F),

  1. –type “be” as your search term, and click the “More” button.
  2. –Put a check in the box next to “Find all word forms”, click the “Reading Highlight” button and select “Highlight All”, and click “Close”.
  3. –Now, every permutation of “to be” will be highlighted.
  4. –Not all of them are going to be passive — or too passive, anyway — but many will.
  5. –Rewrite all those sentences to have more active verbs.

Using “to Be” verbs for anything other than linking verbs or helping verbs is a bad habit.

Any habit learned can be unlearned.”

via To Be, or Not To Be: Getting Rid of those Pesky “to Be” Verbs | Recipes for Writing.

I tried it myself on the work I’m editing. I had it hunt for “be” and “have” verbs (which also tend to be passive) and highlight each type it found. In a 91,000 word document I found roughly 2000 BE verbs and 1000 HAVE verbs. Not all of them are full words, though, and for the length of the document that isn’t bad.

Still, it’s a new tool in my editor’s toolbox I intend to make great use of!

Rob