The other day in one of my sophomore classes, during a conversation about why writers need editors, one of my students brought up that editors can help identify sentences that are in the passive voice. Not everyone else in class knew what that meant, though. I took a few minutes to briefly explain active versus passive voice and how often, inserting the phrase “by zombies” can help you identify passive voice.
None of them were familiar with this trick, and in favor of moving into our writer’s workshop, I didn’t pursue it for too long. But in reflecting on it after the lesson, I think I’ll take their curiosity on this point as an opportunity to include a grammar mini-lesson in our next class, expanding on the “by zombies” test for passive voice.
In case you’ve never heard of this trick either, it was created a few years ago by Rebecca Johnson, a professor at USMC, who realized that this was a quick and fun way to get her students to recognize the passive voice when they saw it. For example:
- On Christmas Eve, Santa brings children presents [by zombies]. Adding “by zombies” doesn’t work here, so it signals us to recognize the pattern of subject –> verb/action –> direct object, which = active voice.
- On Christmas Eve, the children are brought presents [by zombies]. Adding “by zombies” DOES work here, signalling us to recognize the pattern of object –> verb/action –> subject (which is absent or implied in this case), which = passive voice.
This trick won’t work 100% of the time — for example, don’t get it mixed up with an adverbial prepositional phrase — but more often than not, it will be a reliable guide!
With that in mind, here are a few elements of the grammar mini-lesson I plan to share with my sophomores later this week:
- I’ll likely print them copies of Kimberly Joki’s Grammarly article, which explains the distinction between the two voices pretty cogently.
- I may also show them this short little PowToon animated video that demonstrates how to flip a sentence back and forth between active and passive voice.
- I plan to have them work in groups to complete this active/passive voice handout using the “by zombies” test.
- And finally, I created a Kahoot quiz, which my kids always LOVE, to reinforce the point one more time and get them engaged individually. Feel free to use it in your own classes if you find it helpful.
Enjoy — and when it comes to distinguishing between the active and passive voice, just remind your students to use their braaaaaaaains!