Category Archives: passive verbs

Want to write like Hemingway? There’s an app for that

Do you want to write like Ernest Hemingway, using active voice verbs; short, simple sentences; short, one-syllable words; and few adverbs?  There is a free web app to help you.  Here’s how the app works.

Type a passage which you want to be more Hemingway-like. Swipe and copy it.  Go to  Click the “H1,” “H2,” or “H3” button at the top of the app screen to allow you to paste your passage.  Or click the “write” button in the top right corner to compose on the site.

Highlighted in yellow will be sentences which are long or complex or which have common errors. The app identifies them, but it’s up to you to figure out how to fix them.

Highlighted in red will be sentences which are dense, that is, too full of information. Again, it’s up to you to figure out how to fix them.

Highlighted in purple will be words for which a shorter synonym is possible. Synonyms will be suggested by the app.

Highlighted in blue will be adverbs—a sign that your verbs aren’t strong enough to stand alone. The app won’t suggest stronger verbs, but it will identify adverbs, most of which should probably go.

Highlighted in green will be passive voice verbs. You need to figure out how to rewrite the sentence to make the verb active.

In the right margin will be a readability score, that is, the reading grade level of your passage.

The Hemingway app will make your writing more Hemingway-like, but that doesn’t mean your writing will be of high literary merit.  Your writing will be streamlined and easier to read, but that is not the same as “good.”

Still, if your revising skills are poor, or if you are pinched for time, this app can offer suggestions on how to make your writing more readable.  The cost to download a desktop version (3.0) is $19.99, available for both PC’s and Mac’s.


“Automatic pilot” sentences can reveal character

Do you have “automatic pilot” sentences, the kind you use most of the time when you aren’t thinking about grammar or effect, the kind you use when you are speaking off the cuff or writing to a friend?  Most of us do.

Do you know that these “automatic pilot” sentences reveal how we think?  Take a look at the following sentences and some possible interpretations.

Dogs bark.   Simple sentence, subject followed by verb, no modifiers.  Clear thinker?  Simplistic thinker?  Black and white thinker?

Some dogs bark, but not all dogs bark.  Compound sentence, simple grammar, modifiers, repetition of idea.  Clear thinker?  Simplistic thinker?  A thinker who hedges?  A thinker who repeats for emphasis?  A thinker who wants to prevent misunderstanding?

Although some dogs bark, not all dogs bark.  Complex sentence, less important idea stated first, modifiers, repetition of idea.  Complex thinker?  A thinker who hedges thoughts?  A thinker unwilling to impose views on others?

Although some dogs bark, not all dogs bark, and not all barking animals are dogs.  Compound-complex sentence, complex grammar, multiple qualifiers, repetition of idea, convoluted logic.  Complex thinker?  A thinker who hedges thoughts?  Muddled thinker?  An attorney?  A trickster?

When I talk to immigrants for whom English is not a first language, my automatic pilot sentences are short and usually simple or compound.  I use no contractions.  My vocabulary is basic unless I recognize that they are comfortable with English.  My sentences use active, not passive, verbs.  My sentences seem to show I am a simplistic thinker.

But when I speak to native born English speakers and especially to savvy adults, I speak in long and complicated automatic pilot sentences, like this one.  I use contractions and, unless I am talking to a child, an academic vocabulary.  My sentences seem to show that I am a complex, well educated thinker.

Take a look at an email you’ve written.  What do your automatic pilot sentences reveal about your mind?

Why does “there is” and “there are” lead to poor writing?

Sentences which begin with “there” followed by a form of the verb “to be” put the subject after the verb. Most sentences, like the one you are reading now, name the subject first, and then tell what the subject does.  But when the sentence begins with “There is” or “There was” the subject is the third or fourth word, a weaker construction than the typical subject-verb construction.

“There is” and “there were” compound the weakness by using the weakest verb in the English language, “to be.” In a sentence like “There are two dogs,” we know nothing about the dogs except that they exist.  Even if we add a bit more information, such as “There are two dogs across the street,” we know little except that they exist across the street.

“There” like “It” (It’s raining out. It’s three o’clock) is a filler word, a word to get the sentence going without adding any information.  This construction is similar to a child starting a paragraph with, “I’m going to tell you about my pet dog.”  This child’s sentence offers a way for the child to start, but a poor way.  If the sentences which follow are about a dog, do you really need to start off by saying that you are going to tell us about your dog?

Sometimes the noun that follows “There is” is a noun which can be changed into a verb. When the sentence is rewritten, the sentence becomes more dynamic.  For example, take the sentence, “There was anger in the school about the school lunches.  “Anger” has no verb form, but “fume” or “seethe” are synonyms which could be used as the desired verb.  But now we have another problem.  Who fumes?  Who seethes about the lunches?

This problem leads to another shortcoming of “there is.” Many times “there is” creates a passive construction, one in which the reader doesn’t know who is acting.  Most of the time, the writer isn’t intentionally hiding who is doing the action in a sentence.  The writer is rather relying on an easy way to begin a sentence.  Why not come right out and say the actor, making the sentence more direct?

Another reason not to start a sentence with “There is” is that the beginnings of sentences receive the most focus. English speakers are accustomed to hearing the doer of the action named first.  (“John bounced the ball” not “The ball was bounced by John.”)  But when the beginning is a filler word like “There,” that opportunity to highlight the subject is squandered.  We focus on a meaningless word.

Analyze a piece of your own writing.  Circle all the “there is” and “there are” constructions whether they occur as the first words of sentences or the first words of subordinate clauses.  Now figure out how to eliminate them.

One exception:  When you write dialog, write the way people speak.  People say “there was” and “there will be” habitually.  On the other hand, if you want your speakers to sound dynamic, active, animated or enthusiastic, don’t put the words “there is” into their mouths.

Six rules for clear thinking and writing by George Orwell

One excellent yet pithy set of rules for writing well comes from 70 years ago by the British writer, George Orwell, author of 1984 and Animal Farm as well as numerous essays.  The rules are part of an essay called “Politics and the English Language” in which he argues that poorly written English results from bad habits of thought.  Get rid of the bad habits and clearer thinking emerges in the mind of the writer and on paper.

His six rules are

  • “Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  • “Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  • “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  • “Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  • “Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  • “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”

Use active verbs, not passive verbs, to improve your writing

What are active verbs? In a sentence with an active verb, the subject does the verb.

  • “The cat licked her paw.” In this sentence, the cat is the subject, and it is doing the licking.
  • “Lee ate a sandwich.” In this sentence, Lee is the subject, and Lee is doing the eating.
  • “The red car crashed into the blue car.” In this sentence, the red car is the subject, and it did the crashing.

What are passive verbs? In a sentence with a passive verb, the subject does not do the verb. In fact, we may not know who does the verb.

  • “I was followed home by a dirty dog.” In this sentence, I is the subject, but I does not do the following.
  • “By that time, the contract had been accepted.” In this sentence, the contract did not do the accepting. We don’t know who did the accepting.
  • “Homework was assigned by every teacher.” In this sentence, the homework did not do the assigning.

What are the advantages of active verbs?

  • Clarity—Active verbs make your writing easily understood the first time.
  • Brevity—Using active verbs is almost always the most concise way to write.
  • Action—Your writing zips along when you use active verbs.

Then, why do we have passive verbs?

  • To mask the doer of an action. Sometimes we don’t want to say who did the action of the verb because it might be more diplomatic not to identify who did the action. Or we might not know who did the action. For example, you could say, “Explosions were set off at the port.”
  • To obfuscate. Sometimes a writer deliberately wants to keep the reader confused or unsure.
  • To slow down the action in a narrative.

Henry James is a 19th century American novelist who wrote in the passive voice and often used the verb “to be.” Many readers find his writing ponderous because of its long sentences and lack of action. His writing demands that you reread a sentence to understand it. This kind of writing seems quaint and tedious to 21st century readers who want James to get to the point. But maybe the people he wrote for had leisure to appreciate a slower pace in fiction.