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Words to the Wise

Be Active—It’s Good for Your Health

The non-fiction guru William Zinsser says, "The difference between an active-verb style and a passive-verb style—in clarity and vigor—is the difference between life and death for a writer."

Life and death? Wow!

He goes on: "Verbs are the most important of all your tools. They push the sentence forward and give it momentum. Active verbs push hard; passive verbs tug fitfully." For example, "Joe saw him" (active) is strong. It's short and precise and leaves no doubt who did what. "He was seen by Joe" (passive) is weak. It's necessarily longer and has an insipid quality. It's also ambiguous: How often was he seen by Joe? Once? Every day? Once a week? A passive style, says Zinsser, will sap the reader's energy. Nobody ever quite knows what is being perpetrated by whom and on whom.

All the books on writing and style that I've read contain similar advice: the active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive. Every writer must learn to spot the passive. Invariably a passive clause contains a be-verb (or get) plus a past participle (usually a verb ending in ed). "The deadline was missed by the student" and "My wallet got swiped" are passive constructions. "The student missed the deadline" and "Some low-life swiped my wallet" are active—and better.

But hold on! There are good reasons to use the passive. Here are some: when the actor is unimportant or unknown; when you want to hide the actor's identity (maybe that's why the passive has become so common in business and political writing); when the focus of the sentence is on the thing being acted upon; when you want the punch word at the end of the sentence; and, my favourite, when the passive sounds better—which it sometimes does.

Know what you're doing and choose well (and remember Zinsser: "life and death!").

References:

Bryan A. Garner, Garner's Modern American Usage. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White, The Elements of Style, 4th ed. New York: Allyn & Bacon, 2000.

William Zinsser, On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, 30th Anniversary Edition. New York: HarperCollins, 2006.

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