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Identifying Passive Voice: The Zombie Test

Passive voice can often be a lurking specter in writing, casting a shadow of confusion and inefficiency over your work. While writing, whether for school, college applications, or fun, you may find yourself haunted by passive constructions in your text, unsure of how to exorcize them. It’s also important to be able to detect passive voice for standardized tests, like the ACT or SAT

Although Halloween was last week, the “Zombie Test” can help you spot passive voice in your writing and reanimate it into active, engaging prose. In this blog post, we’ll delve into what passive voice is, why it can be problematic, and how the Zombie Test, created by Dr. Rebecca Johnson from Marine Corps University, can be a powerful ally in your quest for clear, lively writing.

Unmasking Passive Voice

It’s important to understand what passive voice is. In English, sentences generally follow a subject-verb-object structure, where the subject performs the action on the object. For example, in the sentence “The cat (subject) chased (verb) the mouse (object),” it’s clear that the cat is the one performing the action.

Passive voice, on the other hand, reverses this structure. In passive voice sentences, the object becomes the subject, and the original subject is often relegated to an afterthought or omitted entirely. For example, in the passive voice sentence “The mouse (subject) was chased (verb) by the cat,” the focus shifts from the cat, the doer of the action, to the mouse, the receiver of the action.

The Problem with Passive Voice

Your writing can be made unclear, wordy, and less engaging when you use passive voice. Here are some of the key issues associated with passive voice:

  1. Ambiguity: Passive voice can create confusion about who is performing the action, making it difficult for readers to understand the intended meaning of a sentence.
  2. Wordiness: Passive constructions often require more words than their active counterparts, leading to unnecessary verbosity. This can be detrimental to concise and clear writing.
  3. Weak and Vague Writing: Passive voice can make your writing sound less direct and authoritative. Active voice sentences tend to be more engaging and powerful.
  4. Interrupting Flow: Passive voice can obscure the logical flow of ideas, making it challenging for readers to follow the narrative or argument presented in a text.
  5. Loss of Responsibility: Passive voice can also be used to avoid assigning responsibility, which can be problematic when discussing accountability or actions in various contexts.

Now, let’s explore how passive voice can be rectified by the Zombie Test.

The Zombie Test

The Zombie Test offers a straightforward method for detecting passive voice constructions in your writing. It involves asking a simple question: Can you add “by zombies” after the main verb in a sentence? If the answer is yes, it’s passive voice. If not, it’s active voice.

Consider a student reading a book:

“The book was read (by zombies) by the student.”  (Passive)

“The student read (by zombies) the book .” (Active)

In both versions, the main verb (read) is bolded, and we added “by zombies” directly after the verb. The first version of this sentence is passive because the phrase “The book was read by zombies,” makes sense. Zombies could, theoretically, read a book (maybe?). The second version, “The student read the book by zombies,” does not make sense. A student can’t “read by zombies a book ”, unless the zombies read the book.

Here are a few more examples:

The cake was baked (by zombies) by Susan. (Passive)

Susan baked (by zombies) the cake. (Active)


The ancient artifact was discovered (by zombies) in the hidden chamber by the archaeologists. (Passive)

The archaeologists discovered (by zombies) the ancient artifact in the hidden chamber. (Active)


The decision to promote the project was made (by zombies) by the board of directors. (Passive)

The board of directors made (by zombies) the decision to promote the project. (Active)


The report, when thoroughly reviewed, is often considered (by zombies) a masterpiece by critics. (Passive)

Critics often consider (by zombies) the report a masterpiece when they thoroughly review it. (Active)


Despite facing numerous challenges, the novel was eventually completed (by zombies) by the determined author, whose dedication and perseverance had been admired by many in the literary world. (Passive)

Despite facing numerous challenges, the determined author, whose dedication and perseverance had been admired by many in the literary world, eventually completed (by zombies) the novel. (Active)


Notice that in most of these examples, the active version is shorter than the passive. Sometimes, in more complex sentences, it’s difficult to find the main verb. But, once you do, the zombie test will help you determine whether it’s active or passive!

Advantages of the Zombie Test

Several advantages are provided by the Zombie Test when it comes to combating passive voice:

  1. Simplicity: Its simple definition is easy to remember and apply, making it accessible to writers of all levels.
  2. Active Engagement: The test promotes active voice by encouraging writers to focus on the main verb, resulting in more engaging and direct writing.
  3. Improved Clarity: By emphasizing the core action and its doer, it enhances the overall clarity and flow of your writing.
  4. Reduced Wordiness: Converting passive constructions to active voice often leads to more concise and impactful sentences.

Rethinking Passive Voice

Before we conclude, it’s important to note that passive voice is not inherently wrong. There are situations where passive voice is appropriate, such as when you want to emphasize the receiver of an action or when the doer of the action is unknown or less important. In formal or scientific writing, passive voice is often preferred to maintain objectivity and emphasize results over the doer of the action.


In conclusion, the Zombie Test, with its simple definition, is a valuable tool for writers looking to identify passive voice. Choosing passive vs active voice is a style decision that you can make for your writing. While neither is inherently wrong, they do provide different impacts in your writing, so it’s important to be able to identify active and passive voice. If you can, you can then decide which one to use. So, arm yourself with the Zombie Test and let’s bring clarity and life back to your writing, one sentence at a time!

Scavenger Hunt: There are 3 sentences (not the examples) in this blog that are written in passive voice. Go see if you can find them!