The most important point to learn from this section is to:
Use active verbs!
Though I often avoid the exclamation point, it's appropriate here because active verbs are absolutely crucial to improving your writing.
Generally, when the noun doing the action of a sentence is the subject and the noun receiving the action of a sentence is the object, then the verb linking them is active.
Example 1: Kiwi Bridge Builders built the new bridge.
Example 2: The new bridge was built by Kiwi Bridge builders.
In Example 1, the subject of the sentence is Kiwi Bridge Builders and the object of the sentence is the new bridge. In Example 2, the subject of the sentence is the new bridge and the object of the sentence is Kiwi Bridge Builders. When the action is performed by the object, the verb is passive.
So, in Example 1, the action (building) is performed by the subject (Kiwi Bridge Builders); the verb is active. In Example 2, the action (building) is performed by the object (Kiwi Bridge Builders); the verb is passive.
Notice that Example 1 is shorter than Example 2; most often, passive constructions are longer than active constructions. In this way, writing in the active voice "tightens" your writing (and tightening is good).
Example 3: The new bridge was built in 2018.
In this case, nobody performs an action; the verb is passive. You find this kind of construction in legal writing quite often, largely because innocence is presumed; one avoids attributing actions to particular people or institutions before a case is decided. We say that the tools were stolen after midnight and before dawn -- passive construction -- if we do not want to accuse anyone of stealing the tools, or if we do not want to suggest a conclusion to an argument not-yet-made. (If Raymond is defending himself against charges of stealing tools, he certainly doesn't want to hear the prosecution say that "Raymond stole the tools between midnight and dawn", even though that is what they're trying to establish.)
The point is simple: be aware of what you choose as a subject to a verb and the object of a verb.
I said at the start that active verbs are crucial to improving your writing. Obviously in certain cases, such as legal cases, this isn't an entirely accurate statement. However, in most other cases, active verbs create more forceful sentences, and especially in persuasive writing, this is to your advantage.
A few tips for rooting out passive verbs:
- The word "by" often flags that the action is passive. Example: The cake was eaten by the guests. The action is eating, and the guests did the eating. Since the guests are the object of the verb, the verb is passive. Instead, The guests ate the cake.
- The word "be", or varieties of it ("being", "been"), often flag that the action is passive. Example: The cake is being eaten. In this case I've omitted the actor, and so as in Example 3 above, the action is passive. Better: The guests are eating the cake. In this, the guests are the subject and they are ones eating; the verb is active.
You'll have a chance to practise this when you write sentences and paragraphs soon. As you read articles and essays, try to pick up on active versus passive constructions, and imagine how passive prose could be improved as active prose, and how active prose could degrade when made passive.
In the next section, we'll consider the more general case of choosing the right word for the task at hand.