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Highlighting Passive Voice in Word 2007

January 12, 2010

So you know how to find the percentage of passive voice in your work, and now you’re ready to weed out that passive voice and make your manuscript stronger. But finding and removing the passive voice in a 300-page manuscript is like finding and removing all the weeds on a 30-acre lawn. You can do it manually, but it will take forever.

Fortunately, Word gives you a tool to help you identify areas in which passive voice may be lurking. Ideally, you should be able to click the passive voice percentage on the readability statistics and highlight every sentence Word identifies as having passive voice. It’s not quite that easy (maybe next release), but it’s still relatively simple.

First, let’s start with what we know about passive voice: it moves the action above the subject. Instead of Gary hit the ball, a sentence written in passive voice would read The ball was hit by Gary. For passive voice to work, you typically need a form of the verb to be. If only you could highlight all the variations of to be in your manuscript! (Note: Not all instances of to be indicate passive voice, but this approach gives you a good start.)

You can, using Word’s highlighting pens and its Reading Highlight feature.

First on the Home tab, select a highlight color.

Then, press Ctrl+F to start the Find feature. In the Find What field, enter be. Click the More >> button.

In the area of the window that appears, select Find all word forms.

Click the Reading Highlight button and select Highlight All.

Each instance of the verb to be or one of its forms is displayed in your manuscript in the color you chose to highlight. The number of instances is displayed on the Find window.

Note: If you click outside the Find and Replace window, the results text disappears. To make it re-appear, just click Reading Highlight > Highlight All again.

To remove the highlights, select Reading Highlight > Clear Highlighting or make a change to the text. Unfortunately, if you make a change to the document, you also lose the highlighting. The techs at FWA Labs have identified a workaround for this issue and will report on it in a future post.

In a future post, we’ll summarize and give you tips about how to integrate this feature into your writing.

One Comment
  1. January 13, 2010 2:33 am

    Awesome tip. I just want to caution that sometimes passive isn’t a disaster. It’s occasionally the most natural-sounding way to place the power word at the end of a sentence. You can make yourself nuts–I know I have–trying to get rid of absolutely every “was” in a story. To maximize sentence variety, you have to use every tool in the box, and even passive voice is a tool. My favorite analysis of this is at Language Log: “When men were men, and verbs were passive” — Liberman’s advice to “let the verbs fall where they may” is probably a little too casual, but it’s good to know that even the passive voice can have useful applications.

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