Tag Archives: good writing

Why You Should Avoid Passive Voice

In my daily editing, I am always amazed at the commonplace use of passive voice over active.  Many people think it sounds more formal, or makes them sound more knowledgeable, but in most cases, it really hinders reading. The passive voice reorders the sentence, so the most important noun comes last. It makes the sentence longer and often more confusing. For example:

Active: The copywriter promoted the book.

Passive: The book was promoted by the copywriter.

We see here that by writing in the passive voice we have extended the sentence by two words, and if you read the two sentences out loud, you will probably agree that the second one sounds clunky and harder to understand.

One of the most common places you see passive voice is the law profession. Why? Mainly because they are always discussing how something happened to someone. Someone is always being acted upon, rather than simply doing something. This is because in legal language, emphasis is everything. If you are trying to persuade a judge or jury of a person’s guilt or innocence, the main focus of each sentence has to be clear and deliberate.

Active: Smith took the money, unbeknownst to my client.

Passive: The money was taken by Smith, unbeknownst to my client.

On the other hand, lawyers can also use passive voice deliberately to sound less accusatory.

Active: The suspect perpetrated the crime.

Passive (preferred in legal): The crime was perpetrated by the suspect.

It can also be skillfully used in cases where there is a multi-part subject in the sentence and the reader could use the verb up front to make it more understandable.

Active:  Tax credits based on current state laws, alimony for the spouse as per the divorce decree and co-custody of the children pending the court order are included in the mandates of the proposed bill.

Passive:  The proposed bill is to mandate tax credits based on current state laws, alimony for the spouse as per the divorce decree and co-custody of the children pending the court order.

In writing for a general audience, however, the passive voice really doesn’t add much meaning to a sentence. It just makes it more complicated. In smaller sentences the change seems small, but passive voice can make a big difference in the comprehension of more complicated sentences, like this one:

Active: The talented copywriter promoted the book with expertise.

Passive: The book was promoted well by the talented copywriter with expertise.

A writer’s goal should be to sound more knowledgeable, or to make fancier sentences. In reality, effective writers try to keep things short and concise. Eliminating the passive voice will give your writing three key factors:

Clearer meaning, which is the whole point of communication, right?

Shorter, and shorter is better, because people are more likely to take the time to read it!

Easier to read, because passive voice will clean up your sentences and make them more memorable to readers.

If you compose with Microsoft Word, you should know that the spellcheck can help you identify and change passive sentences. It is hidden, but well worth the effort!

  1. Under “File” menu, select “Options.”
  2. Select “Proofing” and scroll to “When Correcting Spelling and Grammar in Word”
  3. Change box with “writing style” to “Grammar & Style.”
  4. Select “Settings” and find and click the box for “Passive Sentences” under style. Click ok.
  5. If you have not already, you can check the box next to “Mark Grammar Errors As You Type” so that you will be alerted to any times you write a passive sentence.
  6. Click “OK” to return to the Word Options window.

So next time you are writing or editing your document, ask yourself if the subject of your sentence is performing an action (active), or if an action is being performed upon it (passive). Is active voice making the writing clearer or is writing made clearer by using active voice?

If you are having trouble eliminating the active voice in your writing, or you want to see how a professional touch can make a difference in your content, contact Karen at  Big Ideas Writing today.

Comma Comma Comma Comma Comma Chameleon

Inspired by the old George Michael song, this week the Big Ideas Writing blog is taken over by our summer intern, Erica Dix, who educates us on …what else? Commas! 20140607_182708

Some of the most common grammatical errors are comma-related. Very few of us can name all of the comma rules with certainty. They are more than just a pause in the sentence, they actually serve a purpose! Here are the ten main uses of commas and how to use them well…with or without the chameleon.

  1. Commas are used with dependent clauses, when the sentence begins with a word such as although, when, because, or if. Like this:

Although chameleons like the sunlight, they are careful not to overheat.

However, they are not used if the dependent clause comes second.

Chameleons are careful not to overheat even though they like the sunlight.

 

  1. Commas are used before a conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so)

The chameleon was blue, but he soon changed back to green.

 

  1. Commas can be used to separate adjectives when an “and” can be used between them, for example:

He was a slow, steady chameleon who was skilled at climbing trees.

..which would be written without a comma as:

He was a slow and steady chameleon who was skilled at climbing trees.

 

  1. Commas can be used after introductory phrases, such as consequently, nonetheless, etc.

However, the chameleon wasn’t at the top of the tree yet.

 

  1. A comma is used after a direct address to someone.

Chameleon, where are you going?

 

  1. Commas are used to separate a phrase in quotations.

I’m going to find my friends,” the chameleon replied.

 

  1. Use a comma when referring to dates…

The chameleon’s birthday is June 21st, 2015.

and places…

Chameleon City, USA

 

  1. And when you are indicating an exact renaming…..

The chameleon, named Jeff, was very intelligent.

 

  1. Commas are used with clauses that contain unnecessary information (nonrestrictive), beginning with “which/who”.

The chameleon, who didn’t know how to read, continued to climb.

The information between the subject (chameleon) and the verb (continued) does not affect the meaning of the sentence and needs to be offset with a comma. However, if it is a clause which contains necessary information (restrictive clause) that begins with “that/who”, a comma is not necessary.

The chameleon that was in a hurry continued to climb.

The information in the clause “that was in a hurry” describes (and often identifies) the subject and affects the meaning of the sentence. It does not need to be offset with commas.

 

  1. The Oxford (Serial) Comma

Yes, we would be amiss if we didn’t mention the dreaded Oxford Comma. The Oxford comma is used at the ends of lists before the word “and”. Many writers and publications deliberately eliminate it but here in the United States, the Oxford Comma is widely acknowledged as grammatically correct.

With Oxford Comma: The chameleon eats lettuce, carrots, and spinach.

Without Oxford Comma: The chameleon eats lettuce, carrots and spinach.

I hope this answered some of your comma questions, and got you thinking about how you use this important piece of punctuation. Leave a comment if you have any of your own tips and tricks about commas. And if you are ever in need of a look at your comma use in something you’ve written, contact us at Big Ideas Writing!