Words to the Wise
Be Active—It’s Good for Your
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."
(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).
deadline was missed by the student"
are passive constructions.
student missed the deadline"
"Some low-life swiped my
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
Know what you're doing and choose well (and remember Zinsser:
"life and death!").
Bryan A. Garner, Garner's
Modern American Usage. New York: Oxford University Press,
William Strunk Jr. and E. B.
White, The Elements of Style, 4th ed. New York: Allyn &
William Zinsser, On Writing
Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, 30th
Anniversary Edition. New York:
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