Category Archives: passive verbs

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 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.

 

“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.”