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PLAIN ENGLISH WRITING : 9 Tips to Write Better Plain English Material : Complexity and Pomposity in Poor Writing : Drop the Officialese, and Write in Plain English : How to Recognize Passive Voice : How to Replace Jargon and Legalese : How to Start Writing in Plain English : View all articles

How to Recognize Passive Voice to Write in Plain English

Write in Plain EnglishTo recognize the passive voice, ask yourself:

Does the sentence use a form of the verb "to be" with:

1. another verb in the past tense; and
2. a prepositional phrase beginning with "by"?


It is more difficult to recognize the passive voice when the object (the phrase introduced with "by") is absent. When you rewrite a sentence in the active voice, use a strong verb. The following examples show how strong verbs and the active voice make sentences shorter and easier to understand.

BEFORE:
The foregoing notice is intended to assist buyers in understanding the costs and expenses of buying a car directly or indirectly.


The "before" example uses the passive with agent deleted. We don't know who "intended" to assist readers. Look how long the writer took to get to the important information of the sentence—the costs and expenses. Removing the filler words "...to assist readers in understanding..." moves the reader more quickly to the important points.

AFTER:
This notice describes the fees and expenses that you may pay if you buy a car.

Here's another example:

BEFORE
The votes solicited hereby for the Landlord's Meeting may be revoked, subject to the procedures described herein, at any time up to and including the date of the Meeting.

AFTER:
You may revoke your vote and reclaim your right to vote up to and including the day of the meeting by following the directions on page 10.

The plain English version tells you who may revoke a vote and where to find the information on how to do it. It replaces the abstract "subject to the procedures described herein" with concrete, everyday words, "by following the directions on page 10." It's not enough to translate existing texts—the key is to add useful information.

Find Hidden Verbs

Does the sentence use any form of the verbs "to be," "to have," or another weak verb, with a noun that you could turn into a strong verb? In these sentences, the strong verb is hidden in a nominalization, a noun derived from a verb that usually ends in -tion. Find the noun and try to make it the main verb of the sentence. As you change nouns to verbs, your writing becomes more specific and less abstract.

Before After
We made an application… We applied…
We made a determination… We determined…
We will make a distribution… We will distribute…


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PLAIN ENGLISH WRITING : 9 Tips to Write Better Plain English Material : Complexity and Pomposity in Poor Writing : Drop the Officialese, and Write in Plain English : How to Recognize Passive Voice : How to Replace Jargon and Legalese : How to Start Writing in Plain English : View all articles