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Editing at the Sentence Level Help (page 3)

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Updated on Apr 25, 2014

Use the Active Voice

Verbs have two voices. In the active voice, the subject is the source of, or cause of, the action. In the passive voice, the subject is acted upon. In a personal essay, you are usually the subject. That means the active voice is much more effective in conveying your personality through your essay—you're the "actor," not the "acted upon." The active voice is also clearer and more direct. In the following examples, note the simplicity and directness of the first sentence in each pair. The second sentences, written in the passive voice, are clunky and noticeably longer.

Compare:

    • My friend asked for another helping.
    • Another helping was asked for by my friend.
    • I misplaced my wallet.
    • My wallet was misplaced by me.
    • The administration has selected three finalists for the open position.
    • Three finalists for the open position have been selected by the administration.

Avoid Ambiguity

Ambiguous means having two or more possible meanings. Ambiguous language can either be words and phrases that have more than one meaning, or word order that conveys a meaning different from the one intended by the writer:

The quarterback liked to tackle his problems.

This sentence can be read two ways: The quarterback likes to deal with his problems, or his problems are his opponents on the field whom he grabs and knocks down. This kind of confusion can happen whenever a word has more than one possible meaning. The quarterback liked to address his problems is a better sentence, and is unlikely to be misunderstood.

My advisor proofread my essay with the red sports car.

Here, the word order of the sentence, not an individual word, causes the confusion. Did the advisor proofread the essay with his car? Because the phrase with the red sports car is in the wrong place, the meaning of the sentence is unclear. Try instead: My advisor with the red sports car proofread my essay.

Clear Up Confusing Pronoun References

Pronouns (words such as I, we, them, and her) take the place of nouns. They should only be used when the noun to which they refer (known as the antecedent) is obvious and meaningful. Check the pronouns in your writing to be certain they are not one of the following:

  • unclear
  • too far from the antecedent
  • useless
Correcting Ambiguous Language
    • Ambiguous: When doing the laundry, the phone rang.
    • Clear: The phone rang when I was doing the laundry.
    • Ambiguous: She almost waited an hour for her friend.
    • Clear: She waited almost an hour for her friend.
    • Ambiguous: I told her I'd give her a ring tomorrow.
    • Clear: I told her I'd call her tomorrow.
    • Ambiguous: A speeding motorist hit a student who was jogging through the park in her blue sedan.
    • Clear: A speeding motorist in a blue sedan hit a student who was jogging through the park.
More Examples of Pronoun Usage
    • Incorrect: Both Fellini and Bergman edited his movie.
    • Correct: Both Fellini and Bergman edited Bergman's movie.
    • Incorrect: Leave all ingredients out of the recipes that do not belong in a healthy diet.
    • Correct: Leave all ingredients that do not belong in a healthy diet out of the recipes.
    • Incorrect: They banned parking in their lot so the snowplows could do their job.
    • Correct: The owners of the parking lot banned parking in their lot so the snowplows could do their job.
    • Incorrect: The Civil War and the Spanish-American War took place in the nineteenth century. It was a turning point for the country.
    • Correct: The Civil War and the Spanish-American War took place in the nineteenth century. The Civil War was a turning point for the country.

Example: Trini is interested in teaching and farming, which is her career choice.

What is her career choice? Which could mean either teaching or farming, making it unclear. The writer needs to restate the career instead of using a pronoun in order to eliminate the possibility the reader will not understand the sentence. Corrected: Trini is interested in teaching and farming, but farming is her career choice.

Example: They always talk about the dangers of global warming.

This common pronoun error is known as an expletive: They is useless, because it appears to refer to no one. If the writer has that information, he or she can revise the sentence to be more precise: The newspaper frequently has articles about the dangers of global warming. If there is truly no they, the sentence should be revised by eliminating it: There is much talk about the dangers of global warming.

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