Grammar Rant: The Misunderstood “Is” – Part 1

You will often hear advice to search for any variation of the verb “to be” in your writing and eliminate it. It often gets labeled “passive” by default.

The truth is more complicated.

The verb “to be” is often used in passive writing, yes, but it’s not the verb itself that makes it passive.

Consider these examples.

  • John is an architect. (not passive)
  • The can is kicked by John. (passive)

The first of those is absolutely NOT passive. John is very actively being an architect.

What makes the second sentence passive is that the OBJECT of the sentence is pretending to be the SUBJECT. Thus it is passive. An active version of this would be: John is kicking the can. Or, depending on exactly what you mean to say: John kicks the can. Those two active versions can have different possible meanings, so choosing the appropriate one is important to express what you mean.

Another example:

  • John and Bobbie are starting a business. (not passive)
  • A business is being started by John and Bobbie. (passive)

The first is not passive. John and Bobbie are in the very active process of starting a business. Actually, the verb in this sentence is “to start” and “were starting” is the tense.

In the second, the OBJECT is pretending to be the SUBJECT. That is passive voice.

More complex examples:

  • The man was killed. (passive; If you can hear “by it” in your head after the verb, then it’s probably passive.)
  • The man died. (not passive)
  • The man was pushed into a giant fan and lost his head. (passive)
  • Someone pushed the man into a giant fan, and he lost his head. (not passive)
  • The man fell into a giant fan and lost his head. (not passive)

In conclusion, the verb “to be” isn’t automatically a sign that you’re using passive tense.

Deeper Dive

When you use the present tense of “to be” plus an —ing verb, you’re using the Present Continuous verb tense. It indicates that the subject is currently in the process of doing something. Not passive.


  • I am running for mayor. (not passive)
  • He’s talking on the phone. (not passive)
  • They are having an affair. (not passive)
  • The table is being sanded by him. (passive)
  • She is being ridiculous. (not passive)

Past tense “to be” plus an —ing verb => Past Continuous verb tense. Not passive when the subject and object of the sentence are placed in their proper order.


  • I was making him mad. (not passive)
  • She was robbing the train. (not passive)
  • Their school was being closed by the principal. (passive)
  • He was being playful. (not passive)
PRO TIP: When you’re writing dialogue, all bets are off. People often speak in passive voice, and you want your dialogue to sound natural.

As with all grammar “rules,” you’re allowed to break them so long as:

  1. You know the rule and are breaking it on purpose.
  2. You have a reason for breaking the rule. (Laziness doesn’t count.)
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