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16.07.2011 16:00    Comments: 0    Categories: Writing Voice      Tags: passive voice  

What Makes a Clear Sentence?

The most basic kind of sentence follows what is called the SVO pattern. It begins with a subject (S), something performing an action; then it has a verb (V), which is the action; then it has an object (O), something that receives the action. (Not all sentences have an O.)

Example 1: Reggie ate the wedding cake.

Longer and more complex sentences, using conjunctions and dependent clauses, may contain several SVO's. For now, though, think just in terms of the simple SVO sentence.

What is the Passive Voice?

Passive voice, in writing, results from the overuse of the "be" verbs: am, is, was, were, be, being and been. Passive voice is the opposite of active voice, which results from the use of action verbs like run, hop, hit, love, move, crash, remove, assemble, etc. While a reader will never be able to close her eyes and envision your passive verbs (for one cannot see "are," or a picture that goes with "is"), a reader will surely be able to envision your action verbs.

Passive voice slows down your writing and makes it wordy. Imagine reading a whole paragraph of sentences that begin with "There is," "There are," "It is" or "They are." You can probably tell how that would get boring and monotonous after awhile. Using more active verbs eliminates wordiness and makes what you have written more interesting to read.

Many instructors (and grammar check programs) encourage students to eliminate the passive voice because sentences in the passive voice lack the basic SVO form, often making them confusing and jumbled, and sometimes just making them too complicated.

Compare the following two sentences with the one listed above:
Example 2: The wedding cake was eaten by Reggie.
Example 3: The wedding cake was eaten.

Compared with Example 1, these two examples are obviously quite awkward, and in some ways confusing. In Example 2, we don't know who ate the wedding cake until the sentence's final word. In Example 3, we never know who ate the cake. The subject is missing.


More on the Active Voice:

The active voice (choosing strong, active verbs instead of weak, passive verbs) is just another way of referring to the SVO sentence pattern. Active voice results when the actor in the sentence is present and at the beginning.


More Examples:

Active: Zack tore out the article.
Passive: The article was torn out by Zack.
Passive: The article was torn out.

Active: Storks hate nuts.
Passive: Nuts are hated by storks.
Passive: Nuts are hated.


Revising for the Active Voice:

Go through your written work and circle all the "be" verbs (am, is, are, was, were, be, being, and been), then try to eliminate between one half and two thirds of your passive voice.

You can convert passive voice sentences to active voice sentences fairly easily. When you find a sentence in the OVS form, or the OV form, find the S - who or what is doing the action - and put that word first. Find the O - what the subject is doing - and put that at the end.

Another good way to cut down on passive voice is to combine sentences, or revise them to convey your original thought in a new, more powerful, active way.


You Don't Have to Eliminate ALL of your "Be" Verbs!

The "be" verbs wouldn't be words if we didn't need them in the English language. Sometimes they are necessary:

Use the passive voice when the O is more important than the S, as in a report for a science lab.

Example: The beaker was filled halfway with HCl, and then H2O was added.

Use forms of be to create vivid descriptions of your subjects:

Example: Vivian was a tall, big-boned woman with long, wild hair, and crazy eyes.

Use the forms of be as helping verbs before present participles (is leaving, are buying) to express ongoing action:

Example: David was already running late when he locked his keys in his car.
Example: Michelle is moving to Africa to work for the Peace Corps

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