The Passivator

A passive verb and adverb flagger for Mozilla-derived browsers, Safari, and Opera 7.5, with caveats. NOTE! NOTE! FOR ENTERTAINMENT PURPOSES ONLY--DOES NOT REPLACE REAL GRAMMAR KNOWLEDGE.

Writers do well to avoid adverbs whenever possible, so on March 20, Gina Trapani (Gina is great.) published a Javascript bookmarklet for writers, the ly detector. One click, and it flagged adverbs on a web page in bright yellow. I love the ly detector and use it daily to perceive my literary failings, and those of others.

Tonight, I took Gina's code (which she borrowed from me, and I borrowed from Kryogenix—fun), and modified it to flag passive verbs, as well as adverbs.

The Verbs & Conjunctions Flagged

  1. is
  2. am
  3. are
  4. was
  5. were
  6. be
  7. being
  8. been
  9. I'm
  10. it's
  11. he's
  12. here's
  13. she's
  14. that's
  15. there's
  16. they're
  17. we're
  18. what's
  19. who's
  20. you're
  21. go (not a passive verb, but often a sign of trouble.)

Passive verbs appear in yellow; adverbs in light blue. Note that this program sees no difference between nefarious passive voice (“The dog was bitten by a man.”) and not-so-nefarious tense constructions (“The dog was old.”). See “Caveats,” below, for issues regarding tense. Sample output, from a recent essay in the New Yorker:

Sample of output from the Passivator.

Installing the Passivator

To install the Passivator, drag this link to your browser's toolbar: [Passivator].

Now, when you suspect a page of lacking the proper active outlook, click the Passivator, and witness weak writing—yours, that of your favorite or least favorite weblogger, or that of the New York Times—in its yellow-and-blue glory. The speckled text of long threads on discussion sites (Slashdot, Metafilter) shows some writers as adverb-and-passive-verb addicts, and others brusque and active. Thrills, chills.

To lose the highlights, reload the page.

“In Opera,” notes Timothy J. Luoma, “as with all bookmarklets, Opera must be set to 'reuse existing page' in preferences, or the bookmarklet must be dragged from the Personal Bar (Opera's toolbar for such things) onto the page in question.”


The adverb matcher also matches non-adverbs like “apply,” “family,” and “only,” because disambiguation and POS-tagging exceed the scope of a bookmarklet and the author's capabilities.

As for the passive verb checker, Rory Ewins notes:

...the Passivator should be used with this caveat: 'was' and the rest aren't always passive. You can have a whole page of wases and ises without any of them being passive.

'The cat was bitten by a dog.' - passive voice.

'A dog bit the cat.' - active voice.

'The cat was tired.' - past tense; not passive voice at all.

Although the Passivator is a useful tool for flagging potential offenders, it could be pretty misleading for those who don't understand the distinction between passive and active voice.

Rory also pointed me to a guide on the topic, which has this to say:

You can recognize passive-voice expressions because the verb phrase will always include a form of be, such as am, is, was, were, are, or been. The presence of a be-verb, however, does not necessarily mean that the sentence is in passive voice. Another way to recognize passive-voice sentences is that they may include a “by the...” phrase after the verb; the agent performing the action, if named, is the object of the preposition in this phrase.

Later, it wisely says:

Don't trust the grammar-checking programs in word-processing software. Many grammar checkers flag all passive constructions, but you may want to keep some that are flagged. Trust your judgement, or ask another human being for their opinion about which sentence sounds best.

Contra Caveat

It is true that be-form verbs do not always indicate passive construction, but I've found that be-form verbs, when they indicate tense, often appear in sentences that could do better. Sometimes they can just be omitted. “The press seems as gullible today as they were when they bought his claim.” could also be “The press seems as gullible today as when they bought his claim.”

Sometimes such constructions indicate soft thinking: “The cat was tired,” or “Jim Kerry was angry about the recent vote” aren't passive, but neither sentence does much work, and if a piece contains many of them it can indicate laziness on the part of the writer. Sentences should take responsibility for themselves: “The cat, sleepy, rubbed David's ankles and mewled—and was ignored, her desires lost in the gap of language,” or “Angry and frustrated despite the applause, John Kerry stood at the podium, preparing a response to the just-announced vote in favor of the budget.” So...Rory is correct, but I also find it worth my time to review every use of a be-form verb in my prose. (In fiction, it is often good to rewrite such sentences from the point of view of the character closest to the reader. “He walked into the room. Sally was typing a report.” could become, “Turning the corner, he heard the sound of Sally's fingers on the keyboard, as she typed her weekly report.”)

Incompatibilities and Quirks

I made an equivalent script work for Internet Explorer, but it fails as a bookmarklet, and after three hours researching the pecadilloes of Internet Explorer, I gave up on the project. If anyone can modify it to work for IE, let me know and I will link to you, or post the bookmarklet here.

Repeated invocations on the same page widens the vertical black borders of the highlighted text, which looks bad but hurts nothing.

Improvements and critical feedback welcome, as always. I have much to learn.

Regarding the Passivator
A response to a response.
Wednesday, April 7, 2004

Links Related To The Passivator

2004 Apr 13 Neologism Flagger
Based on The Passivator»




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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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