Category Archives: passive verbs

George Orwell’s six rules of writing

George Orwell, author of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, published an essay in 1946 called “Politics and the English Language.”  In it he offers six rules for better writing.  I reproduce them here in Orwell’s own words.

1.  Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

2.  Never use a long word where a short one will do.

3.  If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

4.  Never use the passive where you can use the active.

5.  Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

6.  Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

What are the advantages of active verbs? of passive verbs?

Some of the advantages of active verbs are

  • Clarity—Active verbs make your writing easily understood the first time someone reads it.  The subject of the sentence usually comes before the verb.  The subject performs the verb, the usual way of expressing through sentences in English.
  • Brevity—The most concise way to write uses active verbs.  Compare:  Wilma ate the sandwich.  [active verb—four words]  The sandwich was eaten by Wilma.  [passive verb—six words]  If we omit “by Wilma” in the second version, we have four words, the same as the first version.  But those four words give less information.
  • Action—Your writing zips along when you use active verbs.  Active verbs  “slip.”  They make scenes go faster and conversations race.  That’s why sports writers write in active verbs.  Orders use active verbs.

Then, why do we have passive verbs?

  • To mask the performer 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 the actor. “The last chocolate chip cookie has been eaten.”  Or we might not know who did the action. For example, you could say, “The market was targeted and bombed.”
  • To confuse. Sometimes a writer deliberately wants to keep the reader confused or unsure.  Detective novelists use this technique.  For example, you could say, “In darkness the body was buried in the woods.  It was covered with six inches of leaves, after which all footprints were swept until they were not noticeable.”
  • To slow down the action.  For example, you might say, “The history exam was returned to Jane.  It was folded, the grade hidden within where it could not be seen by classmates.”
  • To focus on the action of thinking.  Henry James, a 19th century American novelist, wrote in the passive voice and often used the verb “to be.” Many readers today find his writing ponderous because of its long sentences and lack of action. Actually there is action, but it is in characters’ heads.  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.

Forbidding am, is, are, was, were, be, been, being

1  What if you could not use any forms of the verb “to be”?  No am, is, are, was, were, be, been or being.  No progressive verb tenses.  Fewer passive verbs. No “that’s” or “it’s.”  Could you do it?

2  That’s what two of my high school students were asked to do on a research paper due today.  Any form of the verb “to be” was outlawed by their teacher, even if that verb was part of a direct quote.

3  With no choice, they wrote and rewrote sentences.  They pared down direct quotes or paraphrased them.  They eliminated passive voice.  And then they asked me to scour their writing to be sure no forms of “to be” still lurked.

4  And they did it!

5  I was telling this to another student, an eighth grader, whose writing we had just revised, and for the heck of it, we re-revised, eliminating the verb “to be” in all its forms.  A funny thing happened.

6  The student’s writing became more concise.  The student’s writing contained more active verbs and fewer linking verbs.  “It’s better,” the student said.  “Oops,” he added, realizing he had said “it’s.”

Let’s try the strategy on this blog now.

In paragraph 1, I cannot eliminate the forms of the verb “to be” or you might not know what I am talking about.

Paragraph 2 begins with “That’s,” meaning “that is,” and later in the sentence, contains the passive verb “were asked.”  I can rewrite that sentence to say “Two of my high school students needed to do. . .” dropping the “were asked” part.  In the next sentence “was outlawed” and “was” need to be eliminated.  Instead I can write, “Students could use no form of the verb “to be” even if the verb occurred within a direct quote.”

Paragraph 3’s last sentence contains the infinitive “to be.”  I could rewrite that sentence like this:  “And then they asked me to scour their writing until. . .”

Paragraph 4 passes okay.

Paragraph 5 begins with “I was telling.”  I could easily change that to “I told.”

Paragraph 6 passes okay.

When I first heard about the “confining” verb choices for my students’ assignment, I said to myself, “Ridiculous.”  But now I am an ardent fan of this way of writing.  The results convinced me.  Fewer words.  Tighter sentences.  Fewer linking verbs.  More specific verbs.  More active voice.

Win-win.

What’s an action verb? What’s an active voice verb? Are they they same?

A reader said she is confused about active voice verbs and action verbs.  Are they the same?

Sometimes.

Let’s start with action verbs.  In English there are three kinds of verbs:  action verbs, linking verbs and state of being verbs.

  • In a sentence with an action verb, some kind of action is stated or implied by the verb. Some examples are “Ani ate dinner.”  “Lizzy considered her options.”  “The plan worked.”
  • In a sentence with a linking verb, the subject is linked to a noun, a pronoun or an adjective which comes after the verb. Often the verb is a form of the verb “to be” but it can be other verbs replaceable by the verb “to be.”  Some examples are “My dog felt [was] hot.”  “The tests sound [are] hard.”  “That man is my father.”
  • In a sentence with a state of being verb, the existence of something is noted. Sometimes a form of the verb “to be” is used, but not always.  For example, “Washington, D.C. is in the US.”  “Yes, Grandma and Grandpa are at home today.”  “Jefferson lives.”—words attributed to John Adams on his deathbed.

Some action verbs are active voice verbs, and some are passive voice verbs.  Linking verbs and state of being verbs cannot be made into passive verbs.

  • In a sentence with an active voice verb, the subject does the verb. For example, “Davis eats an apple.”  “The dog had barked for hours.”  “The treaty did not solve the problems.”
  • In a sentence with a passive verb, the subject does not do the verb. The object of the subject does the verb.  Sometimes the object / actor is named, but sometimes the object / actor is not named.  For example, “The assignments were completed.”  [By whom?  We don’t know.]  “An apple is being eaten.”  [By whom?  We don’t know.]   “The medal was won by the Swedes.”  [By whom?  The Swedes.]

So to recap, action verbs can be either active voice (when the subject does the verb) or passive voice (when someone other than the subject does the verb).  Linking and state of being verbs are neither active voice nor passive voice.

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 Hemingwayapp.com.  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.