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Minimizing Passive Sentences

some misunderstandings

4:23 am on Jan 2, 2003 (gmt 0)

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WebmasterWorld Senior Member tedster is a WebmasterWorld Top Contributor of All Time 10+ Year Member

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Minimize passive sentences. That's a common recommendation to writers, and people have shared it in this very forum.

But in the last few days I've read a few statements (both here and elsewhere on the web) that demonstrate some confusion on the topic. These writers say that the term "passive sentence" is used to describe a sentence that is colorless, weak, ineffective, without power, etc.

Nope, that's not the meaning of the term. "Passive" has a precise meaning here, one that we could have learned in grammar class. Of course in those days I was often doing things that seemed more important than mastering grammar, so along with many others, I'm playing catch-up while on the job!

In a passive sentence the subject RECEIVES the action of the verb.
In an active sentence the subject PERFORMS the action of the verb.

PASSIVE: "The beanstalk was climbed by Jack."
ACTIVE: "Jack climbed the beanstalk."

That's all there is to it.

I have a tendency to write too many passive sentences, especially in my first draft. And that does tend to make my copy less effective, so I've learned to catch that error on my first edit. But I've learned that it is also possible to go overboard.

Some writers/editors get very prissy about never using a passive sentence. That's a beginners error, IMO, and not a professional writer's point of view.

Copy that exclusively uses active sentences can start to feel like automatic rifle fire. The audience will soon be running for cover!

It's best to minimize passive sentences, but still use them intentionally in order to soften the voice and vary the pacing. In the hands of a good writer, the occasional passive sentence can be powerful, colorful and effective. But the term "passive sentence" is not about the difference between hard hitting and washed out. It's about grammar.

4:44 am on Jan 2, 2003 (gmt 0)


WebmasterWorld Administrator buckworks is a WebmasterWorld Top Contributor of All Time 10+ Year Member Top Contributors Of The Month

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Passive constructions are useful when it's more important to describe what happened than who did it.

"The package was sent yesterday."

People who want to duck responsibility for something like passive constructions for this reason.

"I made a mistake." (active)

"A mistake was made by me." (passive)

"A mistake was made." (passive)

In the last version, the person responsible for what happened has vanished from view.

Politicians and business leaders seem to like passive constructions almost as a matter of instinct.

7:45 am on Jan 2, 2003 (gmt 0)

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WebmasterWorld Senior Member jeremy_goodrich is a WebmasterWorld Top Contributor of All Time 10+ Year Member

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Great examples of good copywriting - enjoyed reading those posts.

I tend to do the same in my writing, too many passive sentences - not enough action which is what gets a reader excited about what they are reading.

The writing that works the best is as you have both said - when you mix it up, and not overdue the active part - bullet points are a great example of the use of active sentences.

  • Write the copy for the reader.

  • Create good sentences with proper grammer.

  • Engage their mind with interesting points of view.

:) Thanks for the tips!

7:59 am on Jan 2, 2003 (gmt 0)

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WebmasterWorld Senior Member tedster is a WebmasterWorld Top Contributor of All Time 10+ Year Member

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Ah, Jeremy, you've brought up a good, related topic -- and you've given a good example: bullet points. Your example maintains a consistent form by beginning each bullet point with a verb, and each verb form is in the same tense.

I see many writers who don't keep the parallel - some of their bullets begin with a noun, some with an active verb, some with a gerund -- YEECCCH! I agree that active verbs make for powerful bullet lists - but sometimes you need to begin with nouns, adjective, whatever. The important thing is to stay consistent.

7:39 am on Jan 19, 2003 (gmt 0)

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I am currently doing a lot of research on this subject and would like to make a few additional points to the excellent advice given above.

Tedster states above that in passive sentences, the subject receives the action. To elaborate on that a bit more, the receiver of the action is placed in the subject position.

He threw the ball.

In this simple subject-verb-direct object sentence, "he" is the subject, "threw" is the verb, and "the ball" is the direct object. The direct object receives the action.

Let's make it passive:
The ball was thrown by him.

The ball has now become the subject AND the receiver of the action.

Indicators of the passive voice are forms of the helping verbs "have" and "be," modals, and the word "by."

Whenever you see these helping verbs or modals, your "Passive Sentence Alert" radar should go off.

Have helping verbs include: had, have, has, has been and have been.

Be helping verbs include: is, am, was, were, are and will be.

Remember, whenever you start to use these words, you are most likely constructing a sentence in the passive voice.

Modals are those non-assertive, wishy-washy words that do not belong in business internet content. These helping verbs indicate whether the action is possible, permitted, required or desired.

The entire list of modals include: can, may, must, will, shall, could, might, ought, would, and should.

"I should be able to ship your order in two weeks." = A psassive and non-assertive sentence. Just the sort of thing your customer wants to hear.

According to more of my research, the following word endings attract weak verbs and passive construction of sentences: -ion, -tion, -ment, -ance, -ancy, -ization.

An example I read and give here:
(passive) "The authorization to proceed came from the President."
(active) "The President authorized us to proceed."

In slight contradiction to tedster, I recommend writing in the active voice whenever possible. Why? Our minds work better when there is action to give us a mental picture.

True, a blend is needed, but passive sentences pop-up so often in our work that even if we tried to eliminate them all, there will be passive sentences that are necessary and those that evade our "Passive Voice Radar."

How do you know when the passive voice is necessary and when it isn't? Only the writer will know if the content could only work in the verb tense in which it is contructed.

You may also want to use the passive voice when you want the emphasis to be on the receiver. In the examples above,
He threw the ball, the emphasis is on "He."

However, if you want the emphasis to be the ball, then you will have to rearrange the sentence into a passive one by writing it as: "The ball was thrown by him." Now the emphasis in on "the ball."

1:33 pm on Jan 19, 2003 (gmt 0)

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WebmasterWorld Senior Member lorax is a WebmasterWorld Top Contributor of All Time 10+ Year Member Top Contributors Of The Month

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Excellent posts Tedster, et al.

I've certainly been accussed by M$ Word of using passive sentence structure LOL. With all of the posts regarding good/bad writing I think I'd better dust off my copy of S&W. :)