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How to Write Clear, Readable, Effective Sentences that Readers Love!
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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 Strengthen Plain English Writing with Active Voice

How to Strengthen Plain English Writing with Active VoiceWhether we like it or not—and most of us don't—writing good sentences is a sweaty, complicated business that takes concentration, patience, and practice. The nature of the sentence is enough to account for the hardness of the job.

There are many different kinds of sentences with many different parts to each sentence; there are many different patterns and forms they can take; and there are many different principles they must follow. Sentence writing is no "off-the-top-of-the-skull" business.

Most of us, however, would like to think that turning our thoughts into sentences is nothing more than a dreary job of stringing words together, one after the other, as they tumble from our minds, paying little or no attention to word-order, meaning, form or structure. Though a good many of us write sentences that way, that isn't the way we should write stentences. They deserve better, for they are, after all, "our minds made visible."

Professor E. A. Stauffen said that writing good sentences is a tedious business that requires feeling, knowledge, technique, patience, and discipline. Each sentence you write is a mingling of grammar, syntax, form, semasiology, rhetoric, tone, rhythm, and style. And unless you are able mingle these ingredients in just the right amounts, your sentence may not mean what you want it to; it may mean what you don't want it to, it may mean nothing at all.

There's one general principle that governs all English writing, making it good or bad, weak or strong. Of all the words in a sentence the verb—the action word—is by far the most important. The verb is the power-plant in your sentence; it supplies energy, vitality, and motion. Without a strong verb to juice up a sentence and make it come alive and move along, it dries out and dies.

Using a weak verb, a dead linking verb, or a lifeless passive to express action is like putting a washing machine motor in a Cadillac. You may eventually get where you're going but who would want to ride with you? That's the way a reader feels when you force him to hack his way through a jungle of sentences thick with tangled passives and under-storied with scrubby verbs, woody links, and strangling modifications.

Every idea has some action in it. The good writer finds this action and expresses it in vigorous verbs.

Let's get down to the basic reasons why prose sentences are so often weak, ineffective, dull, and at times downright insipid.

Heading the list is the habit most of us have of writing almost exclusively in the passive voice. English verbs can be either in the active or the passive voice. In the active, the subject of the sentence is acting, is doing something. In the passive, the subject is being acted upon, is having something done to it, is receiving the action. This passive action is usually bounced back up front from the tail end of the sentence, giving the sentence a stationary, rocking-horse motion, rather than a lively, get-up-and-go, let's-keep-it-moving action.

The passive voice is the weakest part of our language. It is formed by using any form of the verb "to be" with the past participle.


Active: Steven shot the beer can.

Passive: The beer can was shot by Steven.

Active: The mosquitoe bit the boy.

Passive: The boy was bit by the mosquitoe.

Note how, when we switch from the active to the passive voice in the following sentences, we always have to add extra words to complete the meaning of the sentence. Also note how the true subject of the sentence becomes less personal or even disappears and how the motion in the sentence grinds to a halt.

Active: The boss called a staff meeting. (6 words)

Passive: A staff meeting was called by the boss. (8 words)

Active: The teacher presented a report to the Governor yesterday. (9 words)

Passive: A report was presented yesterday to the Governor by the teacher. (11 words)

Active: Yesterday the business office gave the district office enough money to complete its proposed range study. (16 words)

Passive: Yesterday the district off was granted sufficient funds by the business office to complete its proposed range study. (18 words)

Active: The International Esquine Club yesterday recommended that a wild horse range.

Passive: The establishment of a wild horse range near Dove was recommended yesterday by The International Esquine Club. (17 words)

Active: This report contains President Robert's recommendations. (6 words)

Passive: The recommendations that were made by President Robert yesterday are contained in this report. (14 words)

Many government and business writers get into a rut of using the passive because so much of the official and technical material they read is written in the passive. It's true that the passive has a place, often a very important place, in your writing. But it's equally true that when it's overloaded with passives, as much government writing is, the reader just won't stay with you. And why should he? The human eye can stay focused in one place just so long in its search for meaning; then it has to move along. So if your sentences don't have enough life and vigor to move themselves along, the reader abandons them.

Prof. C. Merton Babcock says that overuse of the passive voice is a wasteful practice in writing. The writer wastes time preparing it, and the reader wastes time trying to decipher its "static" quo.

Despite the weakness of the passive voice, it does come in handy from time to time, and it can be used to great advantage if the writer learns how to handle it sensibly for special effect. At times there are perfectly good reasons for using the passive, but at no time is there any excuse for a writer to plunge into the passive and forget to come out.

Out of 100 pieces of formal writing checked in 1 study—letters, memos (especially memos), news releases and reports—more than 75 percent of the constructions were in the passive voice, and a good many of the samples failed to yield even 1 active verb. Reading them was like swallowing dust.

The general principle to follow is this: Use the passive voice when the person or thing receiving the action is more important than the person or thing doing the action, and when the person or thing doing the action is unknown or unimportant.

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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