Sentence Style and Clarity Help

By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Sep 14, 2011

Using Active Verbs

Too many passive (nonactive) verbs definitely block clarity. Passive verbs always contain a form of to be such as is, was, were, and been.

Example 1

    Muddled: A survey was taken of all board members by the governance committee.

In the preceding sentence, the nonactive or passive verb was buries the subject, governance committee. Why not start the sentence with the subject, the governance committee, and follow that with the active verb took? The passive verb was is a form of to be—delete it. What did they take? They took a survey (object).

    Clearer: The governance committee took a survey of all board members.
    Even clearer: The governance committee surveyed all the board members.

Example 2

    Muddled: A free book program is offered by the bookstore.

Why not give credit where it is due? Find the buried subject. Who offers the program? The bookstore. What is the action form of the verb? Offers. Notice the passive verb is—a form of to be. What does the bookstore offer? A free book program.

    Clearer: The bookstore offers a free book program.

Example 3

    Muddled: A survey was taken of the townspeople by the town council.

Again, what is the buried subject? The town council. What is the action form of the verb was taken? Took. What did the town council take? A survey.

If for some reason the writer does not want to emphasize the subject in the reader's mind, then a passive or nonactive verb works very well. In the following sentence, no one takes the blame for tabling the vote because the bill is the subject. Notice the verb was, a form of to be:

The bill was tabled by a 3-to-1 vote.

If you reread the previous improved sentences, you'll see that eliminating passive or nonactive verbs uncovers the subject and clarifies the sentences.

As you read earlier, you may have a reason to use nonactive or passive verbs on occasion. If, however, you write ten sentences, all with passive verbs, you can probably change seven or eight to active verbs. Why should you take the time to do that? The answer is clear: Passive verbs contribute to the fog in anyone's writing. They also contribute to the following:

    Passive verbs add unnecessary words to sentences.
    Passive verbs make sentences harder to understand.
    Passive verbs hide subjects.

We can prove all of these assertions.

  1. Read the following sentence. Change the passive verb to an active verb, and remove two words.
  2. In the next chapter, the family dynamics are explained.

  3. In the next sentence, find the hidden subject and change the passive verb to an active verb.
  4. It has been determined that we will bid on that job.

  5. In the last sentence, find the buried subject and select an active verb.
  6. It was argued strongly that making cars more efficient was the committee's first concern.

Did you change the sentences in the following ways? Answers may vary.

  1. The next chapter explains the family dynamics.
  2. We have decided to bid on that job.
  3. As a first concern, the committee argued strongly for more efficient cars.
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