Friday, March 26, 2010

Self-Editing: Part 8

(This series begins with Part 1.)

VIII. Passive vs. Active Voice

Moving on now to a problem I'm seeing more and more: passive voice. In this age of "cover your behind" and take no responsibility for anything, I see writers fall time and again into the trap of passive voice:

It is to be hoped that …
The results were found to be …

Go on. Be brave. Name names. Say WHO is doing the action.

The farmer's wife used her carving knife to cut off the tails of three blind mice.

Write that in the passive voice and we don't know who did the deed:

The tails of three blind mice were cut off with a carving knife.

Using the passive voice can become a bad habit. Take care not to fall into it.

Passive: The leaves were blown by the wind.
Active: The wind blew the leaves.

Passive: There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground.
Active: Dead leaves covered the ground.

Passive: It wasn't long before he was aware that what he had done had been an error.
Active: He soon realized his mistake.

Use the active voice to make your sentences stronger, shorter, and more direct. Don't beat around the bush. Don't be a timid writer!


I'm not going to spend much time on pronouns, I'll just emphasize that pronouns need clear antecedents. Again, this is best shown by example. Here are several taken from Barron's Essentials of English:

The dog lost its bone. (Its is the pronoun; the dog is the antecedent.)

Do you want a small cone or a large one?
(One is the pronoun; cone is the antecedent.)

Wilson tried to calm his wife's fears. He found this harder than he expected.
(This is the pronoun; the sentence about calming fears is the antecedent.)

Notice that confusion can arise when you use a pronoun and don't make it clear what or who the pronoun is referring back to. Don't name three women in one sentence, for example, and then expect your reader to know which of the three is meant by the pronoun she in the next sentence. It's not clear.

Mary told Lucy that Alice had stolen the tarts. She left in a huff. ("She" could mean any one of the three women.)

For a few more examples and tips, see The Blood-Red Pencil.

Next post: Part 9


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